Judges from six Latin American countries revealed that there were serious obstacles, but also possibilities for justice, facing regional judiciaries as they try to protect the human rights of those who have been adversely affected by the activity of business entities.
The judges gathered as part of the Regional Judicial Dialogue on Business and Human Rights organized by the ICJ of Jurists on September 7.
The Dialogue, moderated by ICJ Commissioner Professor Monica Pinto, brought together 17 judges from Central and South America to consider the role of judges in guaranteeing the right of access to justice and remedy and reparation. The judges also considered the need to guarantee the independence of the judiciary and the security of individual judges, lawyers, and human rights defenders in the context of business activities in the region.
The session featured presentations from a member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Dialogue took place in the context of the 5th Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Discussing access to justice and remedy and reparation, the judges shared experiences and jurisprudence in cases related to serious crimes, including against humanity committed during the Argentine military regime, as well as cases of serious corruption and embezzlement in Guatemala.
In Argentina, in a case concerning the 1976 kidnapping and torture of 24 workers employed by the local Ford Motor company at their factory in Buenos Aires during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, a Federal Trial Tribunal sentenced three persons, a former military officer and two former Ford executives to prison of between 10 and 12 years, for their complicit involvement in the crimes.
Former Ford executives were accused of providing detailed information and logistical support to security agents that led to the abduction and torture of the victims, and also allowed a detention centre to be set up inside the premises of that factory.
The three judges of the Tribunal in this case attended the meeting to share the lessons learned and the significance of the criminal proceedings in the context of efforts to bring justice and reparations for the crimes of the past.
The process and the final sentence is a landmark in the fight against impunity in Argentina and an important message to all so that these crimes are not committed again. The case clarified the ways in which private individuals (the former company executives) participated in the commission of the crimes by State agents (military and security agents), elaborating upon modalities of attribution of the acts to the accessory perpetrators.
It is also an innovation in the ways it gathered and assessed the probatory value of the available evidence of crimes committed more than 30 years ago so that the crimes could still be attributed to the perpetrators.
The reparation ordered by the Tribunal in this case was “symbolic and historical”, consisting on an acknowledgment of the facts by the State and the private actors. The victims may demand now other forms of reparation from the State, but not from individuals.
The company as such was not part of the criminal proceedings nor was it sanctioned in the final sentence, since Argentinian law does not accept the criminal responsibility of legal entities such as corporations.
A participant judge from Guatemala shared a case concerning economic crimes of corruption, fraud, illicit association and assets laundering in a provincial town in Guatemala. Here, the experience and outcomes were somewhat different.
The case involved the town major and several of his relatives as well as some 20 companies out of which nearly 20 individuals and seven companies received penalties in the final sentence.
The case is of special significance in Guatemala as one of the few, large scale, corruption cases that has reached its final stage with convictions. In the investigation and collection of evidence considered during the trial, participated several public offices and the then International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which is no longer in operation.
Thanks to recent laws on corruption and money laundering, it is possible to impose sanctions on the company, as a legal entity. In the instant case, those sanctions consisted of monetary fines but not suspension or dissolution of the legal entity to allow other administrative proceedings against the same companies to continue.
In accordance with national laws and international standards, the judges ordered full reparation, including for damages, measures of satisfaction such as public statements of apologies and publications to be made by the convicted.
Citing a graphic statement contained in the final sentence, the judge Pablo Xitumul who presided the Tribunal said “corruption and impunity are even more lethal than a cancer or a pandemic, and should be combated without delay or excuses!”
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