Sudan: France’s BNP Paribas under investigation by war crimes judges

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Monday, 21 March 2022 17:43

French President Jacques Chirac, left, welcomes his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir at the opening of the 24th Africa-France summit, Thursday Feb.15, 2007 in Cannes
French President Jacques Chirac, left, welcomes his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir at the opening of the 24th Africa-France summit, Thursday Feb.15, 2007 in Cannes (AP Photo/Patrick Kovarik; Pool)

Sudanese victims last week provided testimony to the French war crimes unit investigating French bank BNP Paribas’ alleged role in mass atrocities in Sudan between 2002 and 2008, under the regime of President Omar el-Bashir. 

Last week in Paris, four Sudanese victims – assisted by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Human Rights League of France (LDH) and lawyers from Global Diligence Alliance – provided evidence as civil parties to the French war crimes unit.

It is a part of the ongoing investigation into BNP Paribas’ alleged role in crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture in Sudan between 2002 and 2008.

“BNP Paribas SA has admitted to acting as the primary foreign bank of the Sudanese government between 2002 and 2008,” the FIDH said in a press release. “During this time, the Sudanese government committed widespread mass atrocities against civilians in Darfur and other marginalised Sudanese communities, with the help of its military forces and Janjaweed militias. During this time period, BNP Paribas was considered to be Sudan’s de facto central bank.”

This is not the first time BNP Paribas has been accused of providing financial services to those committing mass atrocities on the continent. Since 2017, three French judges have been investigating the transfer of over $1.3m of funds for the purchase of 80 tonnes of weapons by a Rwandan general who allegedly aided in arming perpetrators of genocide.

The investigation

The civil parties’ lawyers, Clémence Bectarte and Emmanuel Daoud, say: “An important milestone has been reached […] with the first civil parties heard by the investigating judges and investigators, nearly a year and a half after the judicial investigation was opened.”

The probe was opened in September 2020 after nine Sudanese plaintiffs, who claim to be victims of human rights abuses by Omar al-Bashir’s administration, filed a legal complaint the previous year against BNP Paribas.

The bank’s role first became known for its involvement in Sudan in June 2014 when it was prosecuted in the US for violating sanctions limiting financial transactions with Sudan, Iran and Cuba. BNP Paribas pleaded guilty, but it cost them nearly $9bn.

BNP’s general counsel at the time, Georges Dirani, told the US judge that BNP Paris accepted “full responsibility for its conduct”.

The plaintiffs and their lawyers say the corporation is guilty in the current case as it provided financial services to the Sudanese government during the period in question.

The Africa Report was unable to reach BNP Paribas for comment.

Potential outcomes

Following the conclusion of the investigation, if BNP Paribas is found guilty, the French war crimes unit could:

  • Charge BNP Paribas and its Swiss subsidiary as corporations and/or
  • Charge the senior executives for the period in question.

If convicted, individuals could face imprisonment. The bank, on the other hand, could either face a fine up to five times the maximum for persons, be dissolved, placed under judicial supervision or banned from receiving public funding.

The inquiry could last several years, but the outcome will show whether financing repressive regimes could lead to corporate criminal liability.

“The civil parties’ testimonies help to expose the brutality of Omar al-Bashir’s regime and to highlight the need to prosecute key enablers of atrocity crimes, including financial institutions,” says Kristin Rosella, a partner of Global Diligence LLP.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options