07/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

German Company Faces Criminal Complaint Over Abuses in Sudan Dam

The Merowe Dam on the Nile in Northern Sudan is one of the largest and most destructive hydropower projects in Africa. Commissioned in 2009, the project affects up to 70,000 people, many of whom were displaced from the fertile Nile Valley to arid desert locations. Thousands of people were flushed out of their houses by raising waters before they were properly resettled. A German NGO and an affected person now filed a criminal complaint over the abuses in the project against the German company that supervised project construction. The complaint breaks new ground in holding transnational corporations accountable for human rights abuses on their projects.

In February 2005, a British human rights campaigner and I had the chance to visit resettlement colonies of the Merowe Project. At the El Multaga site in the Nubian Desert, we met displaced farmers whose new plots were covered by sand, and whose harvests were so poor that they could not sell them on the market. Poverty among the displaced people was spreading rapidly, and families were already abandoning the resettlement areas for the slums of Khartoum.

Seeing how the early resettlers in El Multaga and other sites fared, thousands of families from the ethnic Amri and Manasir communities refused to leave their homes, and asked to be resettled at sites of their own choosing along the future reservoir. Yet while the affected people held out in their villages, Sudan's Project Implementation Unit and Lahmeyer International - the construction supervisor - continued building the dam. Lahmeyer is a German engineering company which has played a leading role in many destructive dam projects. In 2006, the company was debarred from receiving World Bank contracts for up to seven years for its role in a corruption scandal on another dam project.

In December 2005, the Nile's mainstem was closed to allow dam construction to proceed, and in April 2008, the last spillgates of the Merowe Dam were closed. As a consequence, 12 Amri villages were submerged without prior warning when the water level rose in August 2006, and 22 Manasir villages were suddenly flooded during the rainy season of 2008. Here is how an affected farmer described the manmade disaster in a deposition:

"On the evening of 6 November 2008 water flooded our house without prior warning by the officials. The walls collapsed on all sides of the building while family members were sleeping in the house. This forced us to flee into the open while we tried to rescue the old and the children. In the morning light I saw the houses of the neighbors collapse and the inhabitants run into the open and escape to the mountains. We could not take any of our belongings from the house with us, neither food nor other things. We could only save ourselves with the help of others. Our house which covered an area of approximately 1500 square meters and had several rooms (6 rooms, a barn and a storage room) was engulfed in the floods. We lost all our belongings, our cattle and the entire furnishings of our apartment in addition to the agricultural business which [one word illegible] of our life."

Ali Askouri, a representative of the affected communities, estimates that 150,000 sheep and goats and thousands of other animals perished in the floods. Approximately 4,700 families were flushed out of their villages. At least one million fruit trees, the grain harvests and all the houses, mosques, schools and other public buildings in the affected villages were destroyed. The impacts of the 2008 submergence are documented in a short video feature by Al Jazeera.

On May 3, 2010, Askouri and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed a criminal complaint against two executives of Lahmeyer International in Frankfurt/Main. ECCHR and Askouri state that Lahmeyer was "responsible for the planning, the entire construction supervision and the commissioning of the Merowe Dam Project," and assert that the two defendants "had knowledge of the specific risks of continuing the dam construction project without a timely resettlement." They claim that knowingly causing the flooding of the Amri and Manasir villages was unlawful under Sudanese and German law.

"The Lahmeyer GmbH enforced the inhumane actions of the Sudanese government: their reckless instigation of this building project left several thousand people homeless and destroyed their livelihoods", Miriam Saage-Maass, the program director of ECCHR, explained as the group filed its complaint. "The joint responsibility of a German company in such blatant violation of human rights to adequate housing and food must not go unpunished."

One of the defendants has already refuted the complaint in the German media. He argued that "the residents had been warned in time" about the impending floods, and that only 200-300 people had refused to leave their villages before the submergence. It is now up to the public prosecutor in Frankfurt to investigate the complaint.

In 2008, John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Human Rights and Transnational Corporations, prepared a new framework on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and the duty of the state to protect against human rights abuses by businesses. The criminal complaint against Lahmeyer International is a pioneering example of how transnational corporations can be held to account for human rights abuses on their projects.