Commercial Trafficking in Conflict Resources
The Need for Legal Accountability
Commercially motivated pillage has taken on increasing importance in recent years as the illegal exploitation of natural resources has emerged as a primary means of financing conflict. In countries including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, East Timor, and Myanmar, the illicit trade in natural resources has furnished warring parties with the funds necessary to purchase arms and maintain fighters, while the struggle to control areas of natural wealth drives further violence.
Legally speaking, the offense of pillage is conflict-related theft. Yet to date, there has been little if any success in holding companies trafficking in conflict resources legally accountable for the illicit exploitation of natural resources that fuels violence. Efforts to hold disreputable commercial actors responsible for war crimes or other serious human rights violations have been frustrated, frequently because of difficulties in proving corporate complicity.
This conference and the accompanying manual stem from the belief that the war crime of pillage could be a more effective tool for sanctioning illicit exploitation of conflict resources, as it focuses on the illegality of the resource transactions themselves. As prosecutors and policy makers gain familiarity with the legal doctrine, they will come to see pillage prosecution as an indispensable tool in responding to resource wars.
Pillage is a well-established war crime. It is included in the statutes of all international criminal tribunals and features in the domestic criminal law adopted by many countries that implement war crimes into their national legal systems. While pillage has not been used to challenge commercial exploitation of natural resources recently, a substantial body of highly relevant jurisprudence does exist.
Since the end of World War II, more than 60 cases have involved allegations of pillage. Though the precedents are poorly known, the cases often involved commercial actors illegally exploiting natural resources, and they provide a rich jurisprudence that can be applied to business actors operating unlawfully in modern conflict zones. The manual synthesizes this case law to identify the critical elements of pillage as applied to natural resources.
Prosecuting pillage could play a critical role in challenging the companies and representatives who fuel many of the most horrific wars of our time, while also deterring future abuse.