COTE D'IVOIRE: Toxic waste criminal investigations may indict higher-ups

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ivorian government lawyers have said they may pursue criminal investigations against the Netherlands-based oil trader Trafigura, which owned the oil waste dumped in open-air sites in Abidjan in 2006.

Ivorian health officials, an independent investigation panel, and European lawyers have said the poisonous sludge led to more than one dozen deaths and tens of thousands of people to fall ill in Abidjan.

Trafigura settled a civil case with the government in February 2007 for US$214 million, which the multimillion dollar international commodities trader said prevented the government from pursuing it for liability or damages, according to the 13 February 2007 agreement.

But on 1 October 2008, on the sidelines of a criminal investigation underway in Abidjan against local port authorities—which Trafigura blames for the illegal dumping— government lawyer, Christophe Koussougro Sery, said the state can pursue Trafigura on criminal charges of poisoning Ivorians, even with the civil settlement.

Lawyer Joseph Brenham with the Paris-based non-profit human rights law firm, Sherpa Association, told IRIN the February 2007 agreement is illegal, and therefore, non-binding, “According to Cote d’Ivoire’s civil code, a civil settlement cannot prevent prosecutions or trial for criminal acts. If the state has the political will to do it, there is nothing that prevents the state from prosecuting Trafigura and its leaders.”

He added that, anyhow, a state cannot negotiate a criminal settlement on behalf of individual victims.

Lead lawyer for the Netherlands office of environmental campaign group Greenpeace, Jasper Teulings, participated in the 2007 Ivorian government-commissioned independent panel investigating the scandal, and told IRIN he was “astounded” by the 2007 settlement, “We were baffled by the case. The government made the announcement only days before we released our report [19 February 2007] on the responsibility of international actors in the dumping.”

Outlining what went wrong in countries or territories involved in the transfer of the waste, including Panama, Netherlands, Gibraltar, Estonia, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire, the report concluded, “The oversight of the waste [disposal] was always controlled by Trafigura, contrary to its email denial… sent to the commission on 16 January 2007 [stating] ‘Trafigura was never implicated in waste disposal in any country.”