A version of the following article was originally published at the Toronto Star.
Time has a funny way of catching up with people.
Perhaps that thought crossed Félicien Kabuga’s mind when police raided an apartment on the outskirts of Paris this past weekend and arrested him. Kabuga had been on the run for over twenty-five years when he was finally detained on several charges relating to his role in 1994 the Rwandan Genocide. Kabuga is alleged to have bankrolled the Hutu extremists that killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. He was also the founder and funder of Radio Mille Collines which broadcast the blood-thirsty propaganda which fueled the genocide.
Kabuga’s arrest shows that when states have the desire, those responsible for mass atrocities can be found and held to account. It also signals that the financers of international crimes are in the cross-hairs of courts and human rights advocates.
That Kabuga was finally tracked down serves as a warning to all those who aid, abet, fund or do business with despotic regimes. And not just in post-conflict and fragile states like Rwanda. With Kabuga’s arrest, the institutions of western democracies, including in Canada, are being put on notice.
Investigations into human rights violations are increasingly pointing the finger at companies and corporations. Committing atrocities doesn’t come cheap. It is often assumed that everything has to go wrong for something like a genocide to occur. In fact, everything has to go right for those with genocidal intent to succeed. It requires a supply chain, planning, implementation and, yes, a lot of money.
With some exceptions, like the Nazi industrialists who faced trial at Nuremberg following World War II, companies and countries that do business with or fund perpetrators of mass atrocities have historically escaped scrutiny. That is changing.
Today, business human rights is a booming field. Both international courts and domestic prosecutors have targeted companies for their complicity in atrocity crimes. The French oil giant Lafarge has been indicted for crimes against humanity and financing a terrorist enterprise in Syria. The chairman and chief executive officer of Swedish oil company Lundin has been charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity committed in South Sudan, where a United Nations Commission on Human Rights has reported that oil companies are complicit in mass atrocities. In Colombia, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is reportedly exploring an investigation of companies for their role in funding para-militaries during the country’s civil war with the FARC. Even seemingly innocuous entities like banana companies, such as Dole and Del Monte, have been accused of financing Colombia’s “death squads”.
Canadian entities have been far from immune from scrunity.
SNC Lavalin, which helped to sustain the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was charged by Canadian prosecutors with bribing a leader who was eventually charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC. More recently, the Supreme Court of Canada paved the way for a British Columbia-based mining company, Nevsun Resources, to be prosecuted for its role in the commission of crimes against humanity in Eritrea. Other cases, including that against Hudbay Minerals and its subsidiaries for human rights violations committed during the eviction of Indigenous villagers in Guatemala is proceeding through the Canadian courts.
It is not just companies that are involved in doing business with regimes that commit mass atrocities that should be worried. The Canadian government has sent mixed messages on its arms trade, insisting that it won’t sell military weapons to human rights-violating regimes. Yet, for some reason, Saudi Arabia is exempt. Despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives, the jailing of human rights advocates, and a heaping pile of allegations of war crimes committed in Yemen, the Canadian government announced last month that Canada would continue selling military hardware to Saudi Arabia. This begs the question: if it’s not enough for a journalist to be slaughtered and disappeared, for atrocities to be perpetrated against civilians, and for rights advocates to be jailed, just how bad do things have to get for Canada to stop selling arms to the Saudi government?
The government insists that all is fine because a Global Affairs Canada investigation found no evidence that the military goods sold to Saudi Arabia are being used to commit atrocities. On the contrary, the investigation concluded that they “contribute to regional security.”
Others have already pointed out how incoherent, contradictory, and sinister this conclusion is. Even if Canada’s military hardware was used for ostensibly defensive purposes, it should not be sold to a government whose military actions in Yemen have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, including those of children.
The government will, of course, insist that we must protect Canadian jobs. It did so when it pushed for SNC Lavalin to receive a deferred prosecution agreement and it has done so when it comes to protecting the companies that make the military hardware sold to Saudi Arabia. But that’s not a trade-off Canadians should have to make. It is up to the government to find business partners that aren’t involved in murdering journalists or bombing school busses. If it doesn’t get it right, time might just catch up with it.