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Justice

Nestle under fire over Colombian murder

A Nestle employee and union member in Colombia was murdered by paramilitary forces seven years ago. Human rights organizations say Nestle shares the blame, but investigations have stalled for years.

Over three months ago, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin (ECCHR) and Sinaltrainal, the Colombian trade union for the food industry, teamed up to press charges against food giant Nestle with the public prosecutor in the Swiss canton of Zug.

The groups accused Nestle of responsibility for the murder of Luciano Romero in 2005, due to neglect of safety precautions. However, investigation into the case has yet to begin.

It looks like the complaint is a hot one for the Swiss prosecution to handle. The case would set a new precedent. It would be the first time that a Swiss business had been held legally responsible for a breach of law abroad.

Nestle, which is the biggest food company and one of the most multinational companies in the world, is also the biggest taxpayer in Switzerland. The company has 328,000 employees in more than 150 countries, with revenue last year of 70 billion euros ($87.6 billion) and a net profit of eight billion euros.

Union members threatened

Columbians protest alleged ties between the president and paramilitaries in Bogota in 2008.

Columbians protest ties between president and paramilitaries

Nestle has been active in Colombia since 1944, where it has grown to be one of the biggest purchasers of milk. The town of Valledupar is home to the Cicolac factory, a subsidiary which buys up most of the milk in the region and is an important economic force.

In the 1990s, Romero was one of 191 employees at Cicolac. Nestle planned a joint venture with another company, and Romero became an active opponent of the move.

"Romero became one of the most important union activists in the region," said legal expert Claudia Müller-Hoff, who is working on the case for the ECCHR. "Because of his active involvement, local paramilitaries often threatened to kill him."

Romero was unable to stop Nestle's plans.

"During the process of restructuring, all employees were let go and replaced by new staff with worse contracts," said Michel Egger of Alliance Sud, one of the biggest development aid organizations in Switzerland.

Tortured to death

Claudia Müller-Hoff of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights

Müller-Hoff says Nestle did not do enough to protect its employee

In the face of serious threats, Romero temporarily went into exile in Spain through an organized protection program. Once that expired, he returned to Colombia in 2005 and filed a complaint against the termination of his contract.

"At the same time, he prepared for a public witness hearing in Switzerland regarding working conditions at Nestle's Colombian subsidiary," Müller-Hoff said.

But he was never able to testify. Shortly before the hearing, Romero was abducted by members of a paramilitary death squad and tortured to death.

The paramilitaries were caught and sentenced by a Colombian court. In his verdict, the judge concluded it was impossible that the group acted on its own.

The judge ordered the state prosecutor to "investigate leading managers of Nestle-Cicolac to clarify their likely involvement and/or planning of the murder of union leader Luciano Enrique Romero Molina."

The Colombian prosecution has drawn out the investigation up to today.

Dangerous terrain for unions

Colombiais "one of the most dangerous countries for union activities," the International Trade Union Confederation said in a 2010 report. Since 2000, 60 percent of all murders of union members have happened there. Most remain unsolved to this day. More than 20 members of Sinatrainal have been murdered since 1986. Thirteen of them had, like Romero, worked for Nestle.

After Romero's murder, Alliance Sud initiated a process of dialogue with Nestle to discuss the conflicts in Valledupar, sending people to Colombia to speak with locals involved in the case. The results left much to be desired.

"The corporate culture is very technocratic and profit-oriented," Egger said. "That's something we strongly criticized."

In its final report, Alliance Sud said Nestle is lacking in conflict sensitivity, including when it comes to dealing with past events that left the union traumatized.

No comment from Nestle

In the eyes of ECCHR, Nestle and its managers share considerable responsibility for Romero's death.

"After all, despite being well-informed about continuing threats against the Cicolac employee's life, they failed to do anything to protect him," Mueller-Hoff said.

Nestle's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Peter Brabeck-Letmathe speaks during a press conference of the food and drinks giant Nestle, in Vevey, Switzerland, Thursday, February 22, 2007. (Photo: EPA/LAURENT GILLIERON +++(c) dpa)

Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe: the company won't talk

So far, Nestle has rejected all allegations of responsibility and fails to answer requests for an interview. Allegations about the company's operations up to 2005 evidently do not jibe with positions Nestle has taken since then.

An example is Nestle's 2008 sustainability report, which claims that every employee should have the opportunity "to develop his potential in a safe and fair work environment where he is listened to, respected and appreciated." The report describes employee safety as "non-negotiable."

A company brochure from 2006 states, "especially in a war-torn country like Colombia, after consultations with both authorities and the unions, we have undertaken great efforts to protect our union leaders, workers and managers."

Delays after unclear jurisdiction

The complaint against Nestle is also backed by the German-based Catholic relief agency Misereor.

"It is often a country's elites who profit when a company does not respect human rights or tolerates human rights violations," said Misereor South America expert Hein Brötz.

Parties can press charges against Nestle in Switzerland based on article 102 of the Swiss penal code. The article, which has been in place since 2003, holds that a company can be legally responsible for a crime committed within the company when organizational shortcomings make no one individual responsible.

The law has rarely been used in court, and, if the prosecution in Zug has its way, that's apparently how things will stay.

Like many other Swiss businesses, Nestle's tax address is in Zug, which has the lowest tax rate in Switzerland. The company's headquarters are in the town of Vevey in the canton of Vaud.

The prosecution in Zug moved to refer the case to Vaud in June, and a complaint has been filed against the move. The ECCHR hopes, however, that a decision will soon be reached as to who is responsible so that the prosecution can start investigations which will lead to results.

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