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Campaigners Pursue Criminal Probe Into Ivory Coast Toxic Dump

  • Selah Hennessy

Waste removal experts work to extract hazardous black sludge from a garbage dump in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, September 17, 2006. (AP)

Waste removal experts work to extract hazardous black sludge from a garbage dump in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, September 17, 2006. (AP)

Activist groups are calling on Britain to launch a criminal investigation into the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast in 2006. In a report published Tuesday, Amnesty International and Greenpeace say the Dutch company Trafigura should face full legal accountability for what happened.

There’s clear evidence, the report says, that decisions were made at Trafigura offices in London that led to the eventual export of waste from Europe to Ivory Coast.

Amnesty International Africa program director Audrey Gaughran said that should be reason enough to launch an investigation.

“If the decisions were taken here in the UK, then our question is, surely the UK government should be able to take action against the company that took those decisions," said Gaughran. "And if there is no law under which a prosecution can be brought, then we will be going to the government to point out what we would consider a very serious gap in the law in the UK here, which would need to be addressed.”

Abidjan residents get ill, some die

A ship chartered by Trafigura dumped the waste in the Ivorian city of Abidjan in 2006. Tens of thousands of residents said the waste made them sick, and officials said 15 people died.

The company was granted substantive immunity from prosecution in Ivory Coast.

In the Netherlands, where the company is headquartered, Trafigura was convicted of illegally exporting waste - but the conviction did not relate to the impact of that waste in Ivory Coast.

Basel Convention treaty targets issue

The report published Tuesday says the company should face legal accountability for the impact of the dumping on residents in Abidjan.

There is an international treaty in place, the Basel Convention, which was designed to limit the movements of hazardous waste between countries and to prevent developed countries from transferring hazardous waste to less developed nations.

There also is European Union regulation on shipment of waste.

Gaughran said that although EU countries have domesticated that law in their national jurisdictions, problems arise when the event occurs in multiple jurisdictions. In this instance, she said, there are three jurisdictions: British, Dutch, and Ivorian.

“Decisions were taken in one country, actions occurred in another country, and impacts were felt in a third country," said Gaughran. "And the problem we find sometimes with how law is enforced, is that law is enforced largely territorially and cannot always adequately deal with events that happen across multiple jurisdictions.”

Putting teeth in global agreements

The British government said Tuesday it would be inappropriate to launch an investigation here because the vessel involved was not registered in Britain and the waste wasn’t loaded in or originating from Britain.

But Amnesty said it hopes British prosecutors will view the situation differently.

Gaughran said Britain needs the legal framework to make international agreements effective.

“Having won the battle and got the international law, we don't want to see it made weaker by effectively some actors being able to sail around it as it were. So we are talking to various countries about ensuring that the Basel treaty remains strong, including in terms of how it is enforced,” she said.

Trafigura has paid millions of dollars in legal and reparation costs, but has denied any wrongdoing and said the waste could not have caused serious illness.

The company was sent an early copy of the report and said it contains significant inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and oversimplifies difficult legal issues.
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