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Prosecuting corporate complicity in Argentina’s dictatorship

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Argentina put its dictators on trial after the 1976-1983 reign of state terror. Now courts are investigating the role of prominent corporations in the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of their workers. Español

Gastón Chillier
19 December 2014

The debate over how to tackle corporate involvement in human rights violations is intensifying worldwide. One facet of this relates to everyday company operations and their impact on people’s quality of life and the environment. Another, darker, aspect concerns business complicity in crimes against humanity—an issue that surfaced during the Nuremberg trials after World War II and persists today.

In June of this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a working group to develop an international legally binding instrument on business and human rights. Separately, in many countries, including Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Brazil and Colombia, people have been analyzing the role played by transnational corporations in human rights violations committed in the context of armed conflicts and authoritarian regimes. Argentina’s experience in seeking justice for crimes committed during its 1976-1983 dictatorship serves as an important reference for these discussions.

In many countries, people have been analyzing the role played by transnational corporations in human rights violations committed in the context of armed conflicts and authoritarian regimes. Although the country’s dictators and military officials were the first to face trial, civilian collaborators—including prominent business executives—played a key role in identifying activists and facilitating their abduction, detention and even murder. These were not isolated incidents. Instead, they formed part of a systematic plan by Argentina’s juntas and some corporations to reduce the power of organized labor, and shift the economy away from industry and towards the financial sector.

In 1986 and 1987, Argentina’s Congress passed amnesty laws that blocked the prosecution of many crimes against humanity committed during military rule. The laws were eventually repealed and declared unconstitutional—in 2003 and 2005, respectively—and hundreds of dictatorship-era cases were brought or reopened. The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) has broadened its efforts to seek accountability on the issue of corporate complicity in crimes against humanity, aiding prosecution efforts through a three-pronged strategy of litigation, research and advocacy.

In terms of litigation, CELS seeks to establish the criminal responsibility of business leaders and managers in crimes committed during the dictatorship. We aim to pinpoint the exact location and circumstances of workers’ kidnappings and show the relevance of their political or trade-union ties, exposing why companies may have wanted to eliminate them.

In 2009, Argentina’s Congress amended the law to allow non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to act as private prosecutors in cases of crimes against humanity or grave human rights violations. This possibility existed prior to the legislative change, but only on a case-by-case basis. State prosecutors continue to take the lead, but private prosecutors, or “institutional plaintiffs,” can act independently, bringing their own evidence forward and making direct appeals to the judge. They often collaborate with the state prosecutors as well.  

CELS is using this innovative mechanism to act as a private prosecutor in the case of Molinos Río de la Plata, an Argentine food company that is being investigated over the disappearance of 26 people between July 1976 and October 1978. The vast majority of those people were union activists at one of the company’s plants. CELS is playing the same role in the case of the luxury carmaker Mercedes-Benz, in which executives are being investigated over the part they played in the enforced disappearance of numerous workers. Recently, the state prosecutors in this case asked the judge to probe the actions of two of the company’s former managers.    

In both the Molinos and Mercedes-Benz cases, senior company executives are accused of providing information to the military about whom to target, signaling specific workers for abduction or handing over their home addresses, for example.

As of September 2014, 15 business people had been charged with participating in crimes against humanity, implicating Ford Motor Company, the sugar producer Ledesma, the mining firm Minera Aguilar, and La Veloz del Norte, a bus company. Former Ford executives are accused of allowing company premises to be used for kidnappings and torture. In the Ledesma case, in which CELS filed an amicus curiae brief, company officers allegedly provided the military with vehicles to abduct their employees.

In these cases the managers are not themselves directly accused of kidnapping, torture or murder. The cases rest rather on proving that they had a clear interest in ridding themselves of combative workers, and that they collaborated with the military and security forces to facilitate the illegal abduction and clandestine detention of those workers.

It is still early in the process and none of these cases has gone to trial yet. Argentina’s legal system facilitates the prosecution of these crimes because human rights organizations are able to participate formally as interested parties. Further, many judges utilize the criteria set forth in international human rights treaties, for example, by removing any statute of limitations in cases of crimes against humanity.

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Ezequiel Kopel/Demotix (All rights reserved)

Argentinians observe a "Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice," for victims of political violence by marching in Buenos Aires.


On the research front, CELS’ team works to piece together information that is nearly 40 years old, analyzing documents from corporations, trade unions and the Labor Ministry, among others. There is an enriching back-and-forth between research and litigation in which shared information serves the legal strategy as well as the process of reconstructing historical events and their context. CELS is doing research in conjunction with the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO) on corporate complicity during Argentina’s dictatorship, exploring how some companies benefited from the economic policies carried out under state terrorism.

In terms of non-judicial remedies, CELS has worked for the creation of a bicameral congressional committee to investigate corporate complicity with the crimes committed during the dictatorship. If established, it would issue a report analyzing the consequences of the juntas’ economic policies, and work to identify corporations and company executives who participated in crimes against humanity to facilitate the implementation of these policies.

Prosecuting the leaders of still-powerful corporations is not the same as trying retired military officials, who are largely seen as the dictatorship’s “bad guys.” Nonetheless, the importance of these trials goes beyond determining the guilt or innocence of individuals. The hope is that they will contribute to a broad societal debate about the role that corporations and civilians played during the dictatorship. In that sense, they represent just one more essential step forward in the process of memory, truth and justice.

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