The unfinished business of accountability for Glencore’s corruption

21 June, 2024 | 5 minute read

Exactly two years ago in a packed London courtroom, Glencore pleaded guilty to paying $29 million in bribes to benefit from special oil deals in five African countries. Although the commodities giant was sentenced to pay record-breaking financial penalties, two features of the UK prosecution left a serious accountability deficit: Glencore was let off the hook for the harms caused by its corruption after Nigeria’s bid for compensation was blocked, and the individuals at the heart of the bribery scandal were shielded from public scrutiny after the court granted them anonymity in the case.

Now, two years on, there are significant opportunities to start closing these accountability gaps: Glencore has agreed to pay $50 million as “penalty and compensation” to Nigeria, while the company’s former staff are bracing themselves for imminent bribery charges in the UK. Here’s our take on these latest developments, and why a lack of transparency currently threatens the success of efforts to ensure full accountability for Glencore’s corruption.

Nigeria’s compensation deal will not be credible without transparency

Big fines, but little compensation

While Glencore has paid almost $1.3 billion in financial penalties globally, those most harmed by its corruption have not been properly compensated.

Nigeria was denied permission to intervene in the UK criminal proceedings to claim status as a victim and seek compensation, with the court ruling that it is the prosecutor’s job to seek compensation for victims. But in this case – as in many others before it – the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) did not pursue compensation because this is only available in “clear and simple cases”. As a result, the overseas victims in complex bribery cases like Glencore have been left empty-handed while the UK Treasury reaps the rewards of big corporate fines.

The US has also fallen short by leaving it up to individual victims to bring their own claims against Glencore. In February 2023, a US court awarded $30 million in restitution to the founders of Crusader Health, a company that provided medical services to Congolese mining communities which collapsed after Glencore bribed a judge to sway the outcome of a contractual dispute. But the Congolese employees of Crusader Health who lost their jobs were not compensated under this order, prompting anti-corruption and human rights groups this week to call on the US Department of Justice to reallocate a portion of Glencore’s fines to these Congolese victims.

Who really benefits from back-room deals?

After being overlooked in court proceedings, the governments of affected countries in Africa have begun to assert claims directly against Glencore. But unlike the series of lawsuits brought by Glencore shareholders, these negotiations are happening behind closed doors.

In December 2022, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) struck a $180 million deal with the company “covering all present and future claims arising from any alleged acts of corruption by the Glencore Group in the DRC between 2007 and 2018”. But this is a fraction of the harms caused to the country and there has been no transparency about the use of those funds.

Nigeria followed suit in May 2024 by announcing a $50 million settlement with Glencore. While this payout as “penalty and compensation” reflects a welcome recognition of Glencore’s obligation to redress the harms caused by its corruption, the lack of transparency raises serious questions about who stands to benefit from these deals: will the funds be used to benefit communities most harmed by the corruption, or will the funds simply smooth the way for Glencore to get future oil and mining contracts?

The urgent need for full transparency

These backroom deals have been negotiated by a powerful multinational company convicted of corrupting public officials in the same countries whose governments are now receiving payouts. Affected communities are not heard or represented in this process. And without the transparency or public scrutiny facilitated by a court process, the parties shaking hands on these deals cannot easily be held to account for the use of these funds.

Together with Nigerian civil society partners, we have called for the settlement agreement between Glencore and Nigeria to be published immediately to ensure there is transparency about its terms. To secure the credibility of this deal, we have also urged the Nigerian government to put in place strong safeguards for the transparent and accountable use of funds to redress the harms of Glencore’s corruption.

Anonymity must be lifted after charges are brought against former Glencore staff

Suspect anonymity

Back in the UK, the individuals behind Glencore’s corporate criminality have remained unnamed. When the company was sentenced in November 2022, the SFO’s case summary featured an anonymised cast of characters whose identities have remained under wraps while the agency continues its investigation. 

This anonymisation made serious inroads into the principle of open justice, which requires court proceedings to be transparent “to enable the public to understand how the justice system works and why decisions are taken”. In this case, Glencore became the first company to be convicted of substantive bribery offences under section 1 of the Bribery Act 2010 – meaning that the company itself is guilty of bribery because its directors or senior employees approved the criminality. Clearly, the identities of these individuals are crucial – yet we do not know who they are.

Real accountability requires total transparency

The SFO’s investigation into these suspects has now progressed to the point of charging decisions. On 14 June 2024, the specialist prosecutor applied to the Attorney General for consent to bring corruption charges and it is expected that these decisions will be announced before September 2024, when the court is set to decide whether anonymity should be lifted.

The prosecution of those people who allegedly gave their backing to Glencore’s bribery is essential for ensuring effective deterrence and real accountability for corporate wrongdoing. Otherwise multinational companies like Glencore – who made record profits of $34 billion in the year of its conviction – can too easily write off big fines as the cost of doing business.

But accountability demands full transparency about those involved – not only the likely handful of defendants who will stand trial, but all 17 individuals and three companies who were anonymised during Glencore’s sentencing. Given the scale and seriousness of Glencore’s corruption, it’s time to let the light into the courtroom so that the public can properly scrutinise how our justice system is tackling corporate wrongdoing.

An oil rig at sunset illustrating article on accountability for Glencore’s corruption
An oil well at sunset. Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

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