SOS Faim Luxembourg has announced that four NGOs and seven of their employees were summoned to appear before an investigating judge in Luxembourg, from 2 to 5 December 2019, following a defamation complaint filed by the agro-industrial multinational Socfin.
The complaint reportedly came following the publication of a report by human rights NGO FIAN Belgium in Sierra Leone, as well as a series of press releases from the offending NGOs (11.11.11, CNCD-11.11.11, FIAN Belgium, SOS Faim Belgique and SOS Faim Luxembourg) and an awareness-raising initiative carried out at the Socfin General Assembly in Luxembourg in May 2019. The latter was aimed at raising public awareness of the situation of the affected communities and at challenging the company's managers. In response, the Socfin group brought forward complaints of slander, insult and violation of privacy.
Socfin is an agro-industrial group active in the cultivation of palm oil and rubber. For several years, the Group has continued to expand its plantations in several African and Asian countries. However, the NGOs in question have made clear that they consider this expansion to be detrimental to small farmers and that it is often accompanied by violations of the rights of local communities, land conflicts, risks of deforestation, pollution, poor working conditions and the criminalisation of human rights defenders, among other things.
The NGOs have recalled that these negative impacts have been documented in several NGO reports and press articles, as well as by the United Nations bodies. In response, the Socfin and Bolloré groups have often taken legal action over the past decade.
The NGOs' lawyers, Jacques Englebert (Belgium) and Pierre Hurt (Luxembourg), have deplored these practices and insisted that "the attacked NGOs play a vital role as defenders of fundamental rights. As such, they are "watchdogs of democracy" and their expressions consequently benefit from special protection, notably under the European Convention on Human Rights. Their freedom of expression must be protected at all costs. Indeed, it constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and one of the primordial conditions of its progress and the fulfilment of each one".
The NGOs concerned have contested the accusations of Socfin and claim to have taken the necessary steps to ensure that the facts denounced in the published reports and press releases were accurate and of public interest. They specified that they are determined to continue to defend the rights of the affected local communities.