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28 November 2014

Engineer’s suicide puts international organization immunity on the line

The parents of a European Space Agency employee who killed himself are fighting for recognition of the link between their son’s suicide and the years of bullying they claim he endured at his workplace. The case raises issues about the immunity enjoyed by international intergovernmental organizations and their staff.

On 20 December 2011, 38-year-old French engineer Philippe Kieffer, an employee of ESTEC, the European Space Agency’s development and testing centre located in the Netherlands, committed suicide at home. Denise and Daniel Kieffer argue that their son’s suicide was connected with his work because he had confided in them, and wrote down in the suicide note he left and in his private diary, his complaints of bullying by a line manager. Philippe Kieffer said he had been "frozen out" after being stripped of responsibility for a project which he had initiated and was very keen on.

The young engineer’s parents turned first to the French courts, filing a criminal complaint against the ESA for “breach of the duty of rescue”. An investigation was opened and a judge appointed, but matters have ground to a halt due to ESA’s special legal status. Since its inception in 1975, the Agency and its 2,200-odd staff have enjoyed absolute immunity from prosecution. Various people were interviewed in the Netherlands under a warrant for judicial assistance, but a number refused to talk to the investigators, citing their immunity.

Read more:

  • L’enquête qui secoue l’Agence spatiale européenne, published in Le Monde of 5 November 2014.
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