Trafigura toxic disaster shows the UK needs to get tough on corporate crime

On 19 August 2006, toxic waste was dumped at 18 locations in and around the city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). More than 100,000 people sought medical assistance and the dumpsites required extensive clean-up and decontamination. Residents worry that pollution still lingers today. 

One of the worst corporate-created disasters of the 21st century, the operations that led to the dumping were coordinated from an office in London by employees of multinational commodities trader Trafigura.
Trafigura produced the waste by using caustic soda to “wash” on a ship at sea an extremely sulphurous petroleum product called coker naphtha. Trafigura intended to mix the cleaned naphtha with gasoline and sell it for a profit of around US$7 million per cargo.
The resulting waste was dumped in Abidjan by a local company hired by Trafigura to dispose of it for just US$17,000.

Trafigura’s London-based employees were responsible for buying the naphtha, coordinating the washing operations, deciding how to deal with the resulting waste and arranging its disposal in Côte d’Ivoire. Trafigura denies responsibility for the dumping and maintains that it believed the local company would dispose of the waste safely and lawfully.

Nine years later, UK authorities have done nothing to investigate those responsible and recently told Amnesty International they don’t plan to.

Lucy Graham

Why won’t they investigate the role of a UK company in a disaster that has such a substantial link to the UK? It’s a question that has come into sharp relief recently in light of the apparently slow response from UK authorities to the FIFA corruption and HSBC “Swiss Leaks” allegations despite clear grounds for them to investigate. Amnesty International’s work on the Trafigura case points to a worrying answer – the UK is simply not set-up to bring well-resourced, powerful companies to justice especially when they are implicated in crimes abroad.

Over the past year, Amnesty International has been pressing UK authorities to launch a criminal investigation into Trafigura and its staff. In March 2015, the Environment Agency refused to investigate despite acknowledging that “a serious offence was committed” if our allegations were true. They said that they lacked the resources, capacity and expertise to investigate this type of case, particularly against a big company that was likely to string out the case for some time.

As multinationals become more powerful and crime becomes more global in nature, UK authorities need to send a clear message that companies in the UK will be held to account for serious crimes in their global operations. At the moment, they’re sending the opposite message – that multinationals are effectively too powerful to prosecute. It’s time for the UK to get tough on corporate crime.
The first step is creating laws fit for the age of multinationals. The UK could introduce a specific corporate offence of failing to prevent serious crime in a company’s global operations – this would make the company accountable for that crime unless it can show it had adequate procedures in place to prevent it.

The UK has taken similar moves against companies based here that are involved in foreign bribery and has recently pledged to do the same on offshore tax evasion and other international financial crimes. But dumping is among several other serious corporate crime – along with manslaughter and grave health and safety violations – that have no equivalent legal recourse if committed abroad, despite the devastating impact they can have on peoples’ lives.

This makes it incredibly difficult to find a legal basis to investigate multinationals in the UK involved in serious human rights abuses or other violations abroad. For example, if the waste had been dumped in the UK, Trafigura may have breached section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which requires waste producers to take all reasonable steps to ensure that their waste is managed properly. Because the waste was dumped in Côte d’Ivoire, that law does not apply – we instead had to rely on a conspiracy offence to find a legal basis for the UK authorities to investigate Trafigura.

Even with new laws in place, UK authorities also need more support and better tools to be able to undertake investigations and prosecutions against powerful multinationals with seemingly inexhaustible resources.

Instead, UK law enforcers have seen their budgets cut and often lack the knowledge, skills and capacity to build a successful case against a multinational. While there are some specialised units that deal with corporate offences such as foreign bribery, the police are more geared towards investigating individual crimes within the UK. They typically don’t have networks of corporate informers, the technical skills needed to collect and analyse vast amounts of emails and other data or the financial skills needed to analyse money flows.

Now, more than ever, multinationals should not be too powerful to prosecute.

Lucy Graham

At a time when the UK government is looking to cut red tape, some may argue that more regulation is counter-productive and risks the competitiveness of UK multinationals. They may also argue that these types of offences have nothing to do with the UK and should be dealt with by the country where the crime occurred. In reality, the likely political and economic influence of the company in that country means this rarely happens. This also ultimately ignores that it is the UK that should be taking action if companies operating from British soil fail to meet the standards that would be expected of them here.
Cases such as Trafigura show that failing to regulate multinationals’ behaviour can have devastating human rights repercussions. Now, more than ever, multinationals should not be too powerful to prosecute.

Background: UK giving Green Light for Corporate Crime

For more detail on Amnesty International’s recommendations to the UK government on corporate crime, see our Too Toxic to Touch briefing and press release.

For more information on these issues and what you can do to help, please see the Commerce, Crime & Human Rights Project, a joint initiative between Amnesty International and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable.