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IHL in the business world: contemporary relevance

IHL in the business world: contemporary relevance
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International humanitarian law – also called IHL, the laws of war or the law of armed conflict – is relevant to business. IHL is not just for soldiers, governments and diplomats, but any actors in or exposed to armed conflict, including businesses.

In today’s globalised economy it is surprisingly common for companies (and their supply chains, customers and/or investors) to be present in areas of the world affected by armed conflict, and it is in these areas that IHL applies.

For companies breaching the rules of IHL – or helping others to do so – there are significant risks. Aside from causing harm to human life and destruction to civilian property and livelihoods, it may also lead to reputational damage, financial loss and legal accountability.

In the past, company executives have been indicted and even jailed for war crimes. Companies themselves have also been forced to compensate victims of abuse, withdraw suddenly from countries affected by war, and have been subject to boycott and other damaging public campaigns.

Let’s look at a few examples:

The case against Frans van Anraat

In December 2004, Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat was arrested on charges of being an accomplice in the genocide and war crimes committed by Saddam Hussein. It was alleged that Van Anraat delivered thousands of tons of thiodiglycol, a substance used for creating mustard gas, to Hussein’s regime for use in a chemical weapons programme against the Kurdish population of Iraq.

During the trial, it was shown that van Anraat knew he was exporting this product to Iraq, that he was aware that it could be used for producing poison gas, and that there was a reasonable chance it would be used for chemical attacks.

Anraat was convicted of being an accomplice in the war crimes of inhuman treatment and causing the death or severe bodily harm of others by the use of chemical weapons contrary to international law. He was initially sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. On appeal, his conviction for war crimes was not only upheld, but his sentence was increased to 17 years.

The case against Guus Kouwenhoven

In 2017, Dutch national Guus Kouwenhoven, president and director of two logging companies, which operated in Liberia from 1999-2003, was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes committed by former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

It was argued that Kouwenhoven had been using his company to import, store and distribute weapons to Taylor and his forces, as well as allowing the armed forces to use trucks, materials, personnel and other resources belonging to his company in military attacks against rebel groups.

The court found that Kouwenhoven knew that the armed forces used these weapons and resources to commit war crimes and held that he had made an active and conscious contribution to the commission of war crimes. He was held criminally responsible and sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment.

The ongoing case against Lundin Petroleum

In November 2021, the Chairman and the former CEO of Swedish oil company Lundin Energy (formerly Lundin Oil, then Lundin Petroleum) were charged with complicity in war crimes in their efforts to secure oil operations in Sudan between 1999 and 2003.

Both the accused and the company deny the charges, but if convicted they face up to lifetime imprisonment. The company also faces a significant forfeiture of profits and possible reputational damage flowing from a war crimes trial.

We’ll come back to this case in Week 3.

With rising geopolitical instability and global crises, and the increasing intersection between this and the global economy, more and more companies are being exposed to armed conflict and its consequences. From extractives or energy companies with mines and oil-wells, to telecommunications companies providing communication and technology solutions; from banks providing project financing to clothing giants sourcing their cotton and labour; companies across all industries are facing legal, operational and reputational risks as a result of their exposure.

Being a truly responsible business means not only appreciating the well-established business and human rights agenda, but it also demands understanding and implementation of international humanitarian law – the law that underpins situations of armed conflict.

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International Humanitarian Law for Business

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