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If a business has abused your human rights, they may have committed a crime (i.e. broken criminal law). In these cases, it may be possible to bring a criminal case against a business OR individuals in the business.
Consider the following questions if you’re interested in bringing a criminal case:
For a criminal case to be brought, a crime must have been committed.
A crime is committed when the actions of an individual or a business break a criminal law.
Common crimes include killing, rape, torture, theft of your property, slavery, human trafficking, corruption, physical assault and some harms to the environment.
Very serious human rights abuses committed by businesses are usually also crimes. But they won’t be called “human rights abuses” in criminal law.
Example: Ford Torture Case (Argentina)
In 2002, a criminal complaint was filed against executives of Ford Motor Argentina (Ford) alleging that the company and its executives were complicit in human rights abuses suffered by Ford employees and union organisers during the military dictatorship in Argentina.
In 2013, three former Ford executives were accused of providing information to security forces which led to the victims being tortured and charged for crimes against humanity. In 2018, two surviving executives were convicted for the abduction and torture of 24 workers and given a prison sentence.
If you think that a crime may have been committed, think about bringing a criminal case.
To bring a criminal case, there has to be a defendant. This is the person or business that is responsible and will be punished for committing a crime.
But, it’s still important to know the types of businesses and people in a business that a criminal case could be brought against.
Criminal cases are usually brought against individuals. A criminal case can be brought against any individual in a business that has:
It will often be the case that employees or contractors of a business are directly responsible for committing a crime (e.g. the person that physically harmed or assaulted someone).
People high up in a business could be responsible for committing a crime. This could involve directors, executives or managers in a business:
When directors, managers or executives commit crimes, it’s usually by ordering an employee to commit a crime, knowingly profiting from or assisting or planning a crime.
Example: Kozee Sleep – Slavery Case
In this case the director of Kozee Sleep, a company that supplied beds for major UK retailers, was convicted of human trafficking offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for employing trafficked Hungarian workers under conditions of modern slavery. He was sentenced to 27 months in jail.
There can be more than one defendant. If more than one person is involved in the commission of a crime, a criminal case can be brought against everyone involved.
In some countries, it is possible to hold a business directly accountable under criminal law. This is called “corporate criminal liability”. This can be done alongside holding individuals accountable.
Example: Lafarge (France)
In June 2018, TNC cement company Lafarge was indicted on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity, financing of a terrorist enterprise, and endangering people’s lives.
The company’s former executives, including two former CEOs, have been charged with criminal offenses relating to the company’s operations in Syria during the period of ongoing civil war.
Although law enforcement authorities are responsible for bringing criminal cases (see below), the more evidence you can provide to police and prosecutors that a crime has been committed by the business, the more likely they are to start an investigation.
Consider the following questions:
You will need to have evidence that shows:
- What: What was the nature of the harm (e.g. pollution or physical injury)?
- Where: Where did the harm take place (e.g. the town, river, region)?
- When: When did the harm occur, or is it still happening?
- How: How was the harm caused?
- Who: What businesses or individuals were involved in the activity that caused the harm?
Examples of the type of evidence you might need are:
Key Resource: The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre Checklist
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has a checklist to help communities document corporate human rights abuses.
For more information on gathering evidence, see “How Can I Gather Evidence?”
If you have some evidence that a crime has been committed, it could be worth thinking about starting a criminal case.
Law enforcement bodies are responsible for taking criminal cases. In general, the police are responsible for undertaking criminal investigations and prosecutors are responsible for bringing criminal cases to court after the police have investigated.
This means you usually don’t have to do as much to bring a criminal case as a civil claim. This can also mean criminal cases are less expensive to bring than civil claims.
This can make criminal cases a useful option to hold people and individuals accountable for human rights abuse.
To start a criminal case, you have to report the alleged crime to law enforcement authorities (e.g. the police and/or prosecutors) to investigate, gather evidence and bring the case to court.
Any individual or organisation can report their suspicion that a crime has been committed to law enforcement authorities. You do not have to be the victim of the crime to report the incident to law enforcement bodies.
To increase the chances of the police starting an investigation after you have reported a crime, provide them with as much information as possible.
For example, think about going to the police with a written report or document that sets out:
- What happened
- What impacts the crime had
- Where it happened
- What evidence you have gathered
- The persons or businesses that are involved
Always keep a copy of any communication you have with police or any documents you share with the police. This can be important if you later need to take a case against the police for not acting.
If the police and prosecutors do take the case, it’s important to keep in contact with the police/prosecutors and provide them with the information they need to investigate your case.
Also, keeping in communication with police/prosecutors can be a good way of making sure they don’t forget about your case and make it a priority.
Once you present your evidence to the police, they should review the information and conduct a (small) preliminary investigation to see if what you’ve reported is credible.
On the basis of this review, they will make a decision whether to investigate the case further.
If they decide not to take the case further, this may be because:
In the first scenario, if you still think starting a criminal case is a good idea, you could start a “private prosecution”. This is where an individual or organisation starts a criminal investigation.
In the second and third scenario, it may be worth taking a human rights or public law case against the government. This is because the government (being responsible for the police) has an obligation to investigate crimes – especially serious crimes – when there is evidence they have been committed.
BUT, if the police are corrupt, reporting a crime can sometimes be dangerous. Read the section below and think about the risks of reporting a case to the police.
Sometimes, it is not safe or possible to report a crime to the police. This can be because:
There are often risks to your well-being when challenging powerful interests and businesses. Only you and your community know the risks.
Seek advice from people in your community and local organisations that could help.
If the police conduct an investigation and the prosecutors bring a successful case, the criminal court could:
Example: Ford Torture Case
In the Ford lawsuit (see above), two of the surviving former Ford executives were imprisoned for the abduction and torture of 24 workers.
Example: Bhopal Case (India)
Following the Bhopal disaster, a criminal case was brought in India against Union Carbide India and its former chief executive officer in 1989.
In 2010, a court in India found Union Carbide and seven company executives guilty of criminal negligence. The company was required to pay a fine and the individuals were sentenced to two years in prison and fined.
In some countries, it is also possible for victims to claim for compensation when a successful criminal case has been brought.
But, the purpose of criminal cases is not to pay victims compensation. If this is your main objective, other types of claims may be better.