Land grabbing: now a 'crime against humanity' with implications for global business

Cambodian rice farmer Kruoch Chan courtesy of ILO/Khem Sovannara

For the first time, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is to consider land grabbing as a crime against humanity. Ben Rutledge, ETI’s Due Diligence Advisor, briefly analyses the implications of this for the private sector, in particular for agricultural and mining companies operating in countries where the rule of law is weak and where dispossession of land, destruction of the environment, or illegal exploitation of natural resources are prevalent.

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The ICC has announced that it will now consider crimes associated with land grabbing and environmental destruction within its mandate.

One of the potential triggers for this may have been a complaint submitted to the ICC by UK-based international law firm, Global Diligence against the Cambodian government, which alleges that land grabs in Cambodia are crimes against humanity.

Legal claims relating to land grabbing have already been made against British and European companies sourcing from Cambodia in their supply chains in local and UK courts. These companies could therefore in theory be implicated in the ICC case.

For background on ICC thinking, here’s paragraph 41 of the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor new policy paper on case selection and prioritisation:

Para 41. The impact of the crimes may be assessed in light of the increased vulnerability of victims…. or the social, economic and environmental damage inflicted on the affected communities…. crimes that are committed by means of, or that result in, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.

Furthermore, here’s a very useful Illegal Deforestation Monitor blog, Land grabs and the International Criminal Court: will Cambodia’s kleptocrats finally face justice? which sets out the Cambodia case from an advocate’s viewpoint.

Whether criminal liability assessed through the ICC will be a major driver for change remains to be seen. But, if the ICC Prosecutor takes on the case, the development will likely have immediate implications for companies operating in risky environments, and may also impact on the supply chain operations of larger European importers sourcing from Cambodia.

It is increasingly obvious that human rights cannot be divorced from business operations. Affected communities with the assistance of rights advocates are rightly finding ways to pursue justice and to hold companies accountable when products are developed through illegal means, up or down supply chains. 

Paying attention to due diligence is therefore now a necessity – to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how adverse human rights impacts are addressed. And while It may be impossible to mitigate against all human rights risks, companies are going to be judged on whether they undertook appropriate due diligence and the necessary actions to prevent harm from occurring.

Download our guidance on human rights due diligence in supply chains.

The photograph of Cambodian rice farmer Kruoch Chan is courtesy of the ILO-Khem Sovannara and is for illustrative purposes only. It is not related to any incidence of land grabbing.

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