The Argor Heraeus Decision on Corporate Pillage of Gold

Earlier this year, a Swiss federal prosecutor wrote a reasoned opinion declining to prosecute a company named Argor Heraeus for pillaging Congolese Gold. I am grateful to Bénédict De Moerloose at TRIAL in Geneva and Ken Hurwitz at the Open Society Justice Initiative for their blessing to post the prosecutor’s decision (hereafter “the Decision”) here. The original German version of the Decision and an English translation the Open Society commissioned are now available in the links in this sentence. To the best of my knowledge, these documents are not online elsewhere, although the prosecutor did make them public by sending them to journalists (see here) and to the parties to the complaint.

I thought to write a neutral and constructive legal assessment of the prosecutor’s decision given that, some years ago, I wrote a legal study of pillage as applied to natural resources (see the English version here and the French version here), as well as an academic article that used the fact of a formal investigation against Argor Heraeus as an illustration of an important new legal development (see here). For present purposes, my neutrality is ensured by the fact that I know nothing whatsoever about the veracity of the allegations in the complaint, and I certainly do not vouch for or endorse any statement of fact about this case in the Decision or elsewhere. Accordingly, I also cannot form an opinion about whether or not the conclusion is correct.

Instead, I want to offer a balanced legal appraisal of the prosecutor’s reasoning in this the first formal document to discuss corporate pillage of natural resources ever. As will become apparent, I consider that the bulk of the legal reasoning is excellent but it is occasionally slightly erroneous – to the company’s benefit as well as its detriment. I hope my reactions are useful to reflections about this and other pillage cases moving forward, especially for a separate new case against a Belgian businessman involving the alleged pillage of Sierra Leonean diamonds, which has just resulted in an arrest in Belgium.

I resist the temptation to rehearse the factual allegations against Argor-Heraeus since these are contained in the Decision itself. Instead, I focus my legal assessment on pillage alone, even though the back end of the Decision also considers money laundering. The paragraph numbers I use within my headings below correspond to the paragraph number used in the Swiss prosecutor’s Decision. I have also cross-referenced relevant portions of my work with the Open Society on pillage whenever possible in the hope of providing a resource for those who wish to pursue these questions in greater depth than I can offer here.

Para 5.1.2 – For Private or Personal Use

The Decision adopts the definition of pillage set out in the ICC Elements of Crimes, which include the requirement that “The perpetrator intended to deprive the owner of the property and to appropriate it for private or personal use.” In the ICC Elements of Crimes, this particular element is accompanied by an asterisked footnote, which reads: “As indicated by the use of the term “private or personal use,” appropriations justified by military necessity cannot constitute the crime of pillaging.” I certainly understand that adopting this definition of pillage from a source as apparently authoritative as the ICC is attractive, but I have argued that this element of the definition of pillage in the ICC Elements of Crimes is not part of the crime of pillage and courts have vindicated this position.

In the Pillage Manual (see paras. 16-20), I set out how this “private or personal use” element in the ICC Elements of Crimes is: (a) not binding even on the ICC; (b) inconsistent with the exceptions set out in the Hague Regulations of 1907; (c) at odds with the vast majority of pillage cases post WWII, which involved prodigious pillage of natural resources to further the Nazi war machine, not for personal or private profit; (d) inconsistent with the case law of other international courts and tribunals that define pillage without referencing “personal or private use”, and (e) at odds with the explicit finding of the SCSL that “the requirement of ‘private or personal use’ is unduly restrictive and ought not to be an element of the crime of pillage.”

It is not evident that the issue played any real role in the ultimate result in the Decision, but legally speaking, the question matters a great deal because this aspect of the definition in the ICC Elements of Crimes arguably implies that armed groups can expropriate resources for military purposes during war, which I think is not correct save under very specific circumstances I set out in the Pillage Manual (see paras. 78-100). Although not especially pertinent here, the error is somewhat unfortunate in that it disseminates an inaccurate message about the significance of pillage for resource wars.

Para 5.1.2  – The Element of Force

Within the portion of the reasoning dedicated to defining pillage, the Decision also stipulates that “[t]o some extent it is also required that an element of force must be present during pillaging.” I do not agree that this phrase should be included in this reasoning insofar as it misleadingly implies that companies or the armed groups they purchase from must use force to commit pillage. While their operations certainly must be “closely related” to an armed conflict (see Pillage Manual, paras. 32-39), force is not an element of the offense of pillage itself. I explain the various reasons why below.

As support for its statement about pillaging requiring force, the Decision refers to in the ICTY’s Mucić Trial Judgment, which reads:

“While it may be noted that the concept of pillage in the traditional sense implied an element of violence [footnote 604] not necessarily present in the offence of plunder, [footnote 605] it is for the present purposes not necessary to determine whether, under current international law, these terms are entirely synonymous.”

In my view, there are several problems with the prosecutor’s reliance on this statement in the Decision:

  • The use of force is not an aspect of the ICC Elements that the Argor Decision draws on earlier to define pillage. It seems methodologically inconsistent to rely on the ICC Elements for “private and personal use,” then disagree with them later without good reason;
  • There is a great deal of case law saying pillage and plunder are synonyms, and they are translated between French and English as such. (see Pillage Manual, paras. 10-14) None of these definitions require force;
  • To the best of my knowledge, the words “implied an element of violence” in the Mucić Trial Judgment have not appeared in any of the many pillage cases since this passing reference. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the language resurfaces here; and
  • Footnotes 604 and 605 in the Mucić Trial Judgement provide very weak support for the proposition in any event. They are nowhere near evidencing virtually uniform state practice capable of supporting the proposition’s existence in customary international law, perhaps explaining why the passing comment in Mucić has not appeared elsewhere.

Section. 5.1.3 – Indirect Appropriation

A survey of case law governing pillage shows that the term “appropriate” in the ICC Elements of Crimes includes direct appropriation of property from the owner as well as indirect appropriation from an intermediary by purchasing stolen property (see Pillage Manual, paras. 40-49). The indirect appropriation limb of this interpretation is supported by the literal language of the ICC Elements of Crimes and at least twenty-six cases from post WWII trials, as well as conceptual first principles (see Pillage Manual, paras. 44-49). The Decision attempts to avoid these sources of authority by arguing that “[i]f even one accepts the view of STEWART, the accused could not be considered as perpetrators since they never acquired the gold in the legal sense.”

I address the argument about conversion rather than theft of the property that the second aspect of the sentence references further below. For now, I want to make a minor point, namely that the basis for indirect perpetration is not reducible to my view. As the Pillage Manual shows (see paras. 44-49), there are at least twenty-six incidents of indirect appropriation in the history of pillage cases, and generally, this extent of practice is more than adequate to ground an interpretation of customary international law in international criminal law. As I go on to mention, this interpretation of pillage is also conceptually coherent – although many legal systems disaggregate receiving stolen property from theft, others do not, and it is coherent to treat subsequent transfers of property as a new appropriation depriving the true owner of the property (see Pillage Manual, para. 48)

One recent development in the law of pillage that is not mentioned in my earlier work with the Open Society warrants mention here, too. If the prosecutor was concerned that the indirect appropriation principle could implicate consumers of products manufactured from pillaged conflict commodities, there were better ways of addressing that concern. The recent case law on pillage emanating from the ICC requires a “substantial” acquisition of property to constitute the crime, which helps address this concern. Although the term “substantial” is often difficult to define with perfect precision, there is no doubt that it should exclude consumers who purchase commodities constructed from pillaged natural resources. For reasons I mention below (see Section 5.2 below), the indirect appropriation principle is also important in addressing ex post facto causation in complicity.

Section. 5.1.3 – Conversion not Theft

As I mention above, the prosecutor avoids indirect appropriation as an aspect of pillage by arguing that, in any event, “the accused could not be considered as perpetrators since they never acquired the gold in the legal sense.”  Apparently, the gold remained the property of a third party intermediary while Argor was involved in refining it. I do not think this argument is quite as clear cut at the Decision suggests; regardless of whether a company actually acquires title, they may have converted the property and conversion may suffice for pillage. In Anglo-American criminal law, the difference between conversion and theft turns on whether the party misappropriating the property wants to take title in the property or not. Interestingly, if one looks at the table of cases at the back of the Pillage Manual (see Annex A), a number of WWII pillage cases involved conversion alone (note that some of the of the “coercion” references should read “conversion”). Conceptually, this makes some sense. The overarching legal test is whether the accused “appropriated” property without the consent of the owner; it makes no mention of whether the deprivation must be permanent or just temporary. In any event, this is a question that requires more careful research and thought. Moreover, in the abstract, an agreement to help an intermediary dispose of conflict gold could make a refinery complicit in the intermediary’s pillage if the agreement existed ahead of time, even if pillage does require an intention to acquire the property permanently. I address a closely related issue next.

Section. 5.2 – Causation in Complicity

The prosecutor makes an argument in the complicity section of the Decision that goes against the company, which I think is probably incorrect. The decision states that:

“The refining and hence increased value of the raw gold by [ARGOR-HERAEUS] is therefore causative of the pillaging by the FNI in the sense that, without the prospect of refining it to fine gold with a standardised gold context, pillaging, illegal trading and smuggling of raw gold would by no means have been a lucrative affair for the FNI.”

This argument is compelling on its face but it is actually an instance of ex post facto aiding and abetting, since the original pillage is complete by the time the company allegedly acquired the gold. There is an interesting discussion of this problem of ex post facto aiding and abetting in modern international criminal law. To make a longer debate short, you cannot make a causal contribution to a completed crime unless you had an agreement to do so ahead of time. Here, it is not clear that this is the case, meaning that the company could not be complicit in the original act of pillage by purchasing the resources subsequently absent some type of collaboration ab initio. 

Consequently, this type of allegation is probably better conceived as complicity after the fact, which was carved off from complicity proper in most jurisdictions over a century ago precisely because of these types of problems with retroactive causation. These problems are part of the reason why indirect appropriation (see Section 5.1.3 above) is such a significant aspect of the law governing pillage – it overcomes this difficulty with ex post facto aiding and abetting by implicating purchasers in a separate act of pillage. For these reasons, following the case law that mandates indirect appropriation was probably preferable to over-extending causation in the realm of complicity.

Section. 5.2 – The Mental Element for Complicity.

There is much discussion about the mental element(s) required for complicity, and I have written about these from a comparative perspective (see here) as well as at the ICC as part of an expert symposium held on this blog some months ago (see here). The Decision weighs in on these interesting discussions by, I believe correctly, insisting that “should have known” is too low for complicity. There are very few systems of criminal justice that consider negligence appropriate as a standard for accomplice liability and I believe it has no role in international criminal justice (although I believe it should be the central touchstone in business and human rights. See here). Nonetheless, there are still grounds for questioning the mental element for complicity the Decision adopts.

In particular, the Decision makes no mention of dolus eventualis. One of the leading Swiss textbooks on criminal law indicates that “Le complice doit avoir l’intention de favoriser la commission de l’infraction, mais le dol éventuel suffit.” (The accomplice must have the intention to favor the commission of the crime, but dolus eventalis suffices). See Michel Dupuis, Bernard Geller & Gilles Monnier, Code Pénal: Petit Commentaire (2012), p. 191. In other words, intention is required, but intention includes a cognitive appreciation of a risk plus a volitional “making peace” with that risk. It is somewhat strange that this standard does not feature in this analysis. I also understand that dolus eventualis was an issue in an earlier Swiss decision by a prosecutor when problems with “neutral acts” arose. Thus, it is unclear why no recognition of this broader mental element for complicity emerged in the Decision, and why so-called “neutral acts” did not reappear here either.

* * *

I hope the foregoing is somewhat helpful. Again, I am in no position to express an opinion about whether this Decision is rightly decided on issues of fact. My kind thanks again to Bénédict De Moerloose at TRIAL and Ken Hurwitz at the Open Society Justice Initiative for offering to post this material here.