VINCI Construction engaged in a legal battle against the NGO Sherpa after the company’s alleged human rights violations in Qatar were featured in a complaint by Sherpa. This case highlights how corporations are seeking to silence their critics through legal channels.
Sherpa, a French non-profit organisation dealing with corporate accountability, has faced constant judicial harassment from various companies after exposing human rights violations in their supply chains. In March 2015, investigations by Sherpa exposed the use of forced labour by VINCI Construction, a subsidiary of VINCI S.A., in their building activities for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Sherpa reported that “Passports were confiscated by the company and its workers were threatened if they claimed their right to better working conditions and housing, if they wished to resign or change employer.” Sherpa’s criminal complaint, based on forced labour against VINCI, led to the opening of a preliminary enquiry by the French prosecutor.
In response to the public allegations, VINCI decided to file defamation lawsuits at the Paris regional court against Sherpa as well as against individual Sherpa employees. Their initial claims demanded that Sherpa and its employees should pay a combined total of 318,000, in addition to €10,000 per journal that agreed to publish the decision. Sherpa has found that, in their experience, “Multinationals frequently resort to costly proceedings of this kind to discourage claimants with less assured finances.” VINCI also filed another strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) against Sherpa based on the violation of presumption of innocence, but this suit was dismissed by the Parisian court in 2016.
In January 2018, the Nanterre bench ended the preliminary investigation, stating that proofs of human rights violations by Vinci and its executives were insufficient. Not discouraged by this decision, Sherpa organized a field mission in India in order to meet with former migrant workers for Vinci in Qatar who would wish to file the lawsuit in their name. Sherpa, the Comity against Modern Slavery and seven former workers filed a new criminal lawsuit with civil party against VINCI Construction late 2018 concerning the alleged forced labour in Qatar.
In October, VINCI adapted its defamation lawsuit and demanded one symbolic Euro from Sherpa rather than the hundreds of thousands of Euros originally asked for, notably by arguing that it did not want to make its lawsuit look like a SLAPP suit. As such, Vinci returned to a more conventional defamation lawsuit and put an end to its ‘innovative’ lawsuits campaign that had included demands for large amounts of money from human rights defenders and legal actions against individual members of Sherpa rather than lawsuits against solely the organisation.
On November 25, 2019, following the lawsuit filed by Sherpa, the Comity against Modern Slavery and seven former workers, the investigating judge of the Nanterre court opened a new investigation into VINCI’s alleged involvement in forced labour in Qatar. VINCI’s defamation lawsuit will be tried after the final closure of the criminal case against VINCI.
Although some legal cases were not successful, and some are still pending, VINCI’s lawsuits – similar to many other SLAPP suits – are expensive and burdensome for the targeted CSOs in terms of both time and money. As Sherpa’s employees are lawyers themselves, they have been able to counter these lawsuits so far, but other organisations with fewer legal resources would most probably have been forced to withdraw by now. These SLAPP lawsuits are part of a wider trend that is seeing multinationals using legal action against human rights defenders to prevent public scrutiny about their activities.
 Kim Willsher, “France: Vinci Construction investigated over Qatar forced labour claims,” The Guardian, April 26, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/26/france-vinci-construction-qatar-forced-labour-claims-2022-world-cup (accessed October 28, 2019).
 Willsher; Sherpa, “Legal action against Vinci in Qatar: Vinci institutes defamation proceedings, claiming exorbitant damages from Sherpa Organisation and its employees,” April 16, 2015, https://www.asso-sherpa.org/legal-action-vinci-qatar-vinci-institutes-defamation-proceedings-claiming-exorbitant-damages-sherpa-organisation-employees (accessed October 28, 2019).
 Sherpa; “Vinci échoue à faire condamner Sherpa pour atteinte à la présomption,” Le Moniteur, June 30, 2015, https://www.lemoniteur.fr/article/vinci-echoue-a-faire-condamner-sherpa-pour-atteinte-a-la-presomption-d-innocence.732684 (accessed October 28, 2019).
 “Vinci échoue à faire condamner Sherpa pour atteinte à la présomption.”
 “Accusations de travail force au Qatar: une enquête contre Vinci classée sans suite,” Le Moniteur, February 6, 2018, https://www.lemoniteur.fr/article/accusations-de-travail-force-au-qatar-une-enquete-contre-vinci-classee-sans-suite.1948814 (accessed October 28, 2019).
 “Accusations de travail force au Qatar: Vinci riposte,” Le Moniteur, October 11, 2018, https://www.lemoniteur.fr/article/accusations-de-travail-force-au-qatar-la-riposte-de-vinci.1997189 (accessed October 24, 2019).
 AFP, “Mondial-2022 : un juge enquête sur des accusations de “travail forcé” visant Vinci“, Lexpress, February 25, 2020 https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/societe/justice/mondial-2022-un-juge-enquete-sur-des-accusations-de-travail-force-visant-vinci_2119363.html (accessed July 7, 2020)