Making Waves and Noise in Turin
Days after French citizens celebrated the anniversary of their national revolution, French lawyers will cross the Alps to take part in a legal revolution when they make their closing statements at the Italian trial against former asbestos executives from Switzerland and Belgium.1 On July 18, 2011 five lawyers who represent French asbestos victims will summarize the case against Stephan Schmidheiny and Louis de Cartier, the defendants accused of complicity in one of the largest humanitarian disasters caused by occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos.
The fact that there is any French involvement at all in these proceedings is a measure of the determination of the Italian prosecutors to put the alleged crimes into a global context. During the preliminary manoeuvres regarding the organization of the trial, defense attorneys objected to the participation of the French lawyers saying their involvement would make the trial process cumbersome. After the July 18 hearing, the trial will recess until the Autumn term.
That this trial is being closely followed by international observers is exposing the Eternit name to unwanted and unwelcome publicity. For decades, steps have been taken to keep Eternit operations well away from public inspection. Although many corporations in the US and Europe have been forced into bankruptcy by their asbestos liabilities, Eternit companies around the world seem to have escaped virtually unscathed. While there is no doubt that the Swiss and Belgian Eternit multinationals paid for the best public relations representation available, it is also clear that the conglomerates skilfully manipulated national governments in order to create the climate most favourable to their interests. Evidence about these machinations has been given during the trial.
Italian journalist Silvana Mossano described the knock-on effects of the trial well when she wrote: the 'noise' the Eternit owners fear so much as they try to keep the matter 'local' is spreading internationally.2 A film Dust The Great Asbestos Trial, by Italian documentary makers Niccolò Bruna and Andrea Prandstraller is now making the rounds of film festivals and is due to be transmitted on European TV stations this Autumn.3 In Latin America, Colombian director Andres Lozano is working on a documentary about Eternit in his country; scenes already filmed include interviews with Eternit workers from the company's factory in Barranquilla, near Cartagena. A play The Translator about the Turin judicial process is being shown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August and next year two exposés about Eternit are scheduled for publication. The fact that both these books are in English is highly significant as previous texts about the company's global activities have, to date, been available in German, Italian, French and Portuguese but not in English.
Eternit executives might do well to study the current evolution of the British scandal surrounding the global news empire run by Rupert Murdoch. It seems that once the tipping point is reached, as it was with the revelation of the phone hacking by a journalist of the mobile belonging to a murdered teenager, no corporation is invulnerable. The Turin trial may very well be the tipping point in the corporate legacy not only of the former Eternit multinationals but also of other Eternit companies around the world still manufacturing asbestos-cement products.
July 17, 2011
1 Mossano S. Arrivano I francesi. La Stampa. July 17, 2011.
2 English translation by Vicky Franzinetti. July 17, 2011.