Unocal sued for foreign abuses

Unocal sued for foreign abuses

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

A U.S. federal appeals court ruled last week that the California-based oil giant, Unocal, can be sued for offenses committed by Myanmese soldiers while guarding a gas pipeline project completed three years ago.

Asia Times reported the oil company can be sued for such violations as forced labor, murder and rape attributed to the soldiers. The paper said the ruling could mean that U.S.-based corporations may have to face prosecution for rights offenses that happened overseas.

It said cases are pending against Royal Dutch Shell for alleged abuses against the Ogoni people committed by the Nigerian Army in the oil-rich Niger Delta; against Texaco by indigenous people in Ecuador whose lands have been mostly destroyed by oil leaks and toxic waste; and against Exxon-Mobil by the victims of abuses carried out by Indonesian security forces in Aceh province.

Asia Times said the Bush administration is trying to get the Exxon-Mobil case dismissed.

The decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by a lower court two years ago barring the Myanmar victims from suing Unocal. That ruling was made despite evidence presented by the victims that Unocal knew about and directly benefited from the troops’ conduct.

The three-judge panel said: “Because Unocal knew the acts of violence would probably be committed, it became liable as an aider and abettor when such acts of violence-specifically murder and rape-were in fact committed.”

The appeals court sent the case back to the district court with orders to permit the issue to go to trial.

Richard Herz, co-counsel in the lawsuit and an attorney with EarthRights International, commented: “In recognizing that corporations that aid and abet egregious human rights abuses can be held accountable, the Ninth Circuit has affirmed that U.S. corporations cannot violate international human rights with impunity.”

The Unocal lawsuit originally was filed by EarthRights and the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1996 on behalf of 15 unnamed Myanmese victims, mostly members of the Karen and Mon ethnic minorities living in or near the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline route. It carries gas from offshore fields in the Andaman Sea to Thailand.

Construction by a consortium consisting of Unocal, France’s Total and the Myanmese state oil company, began in 1992 and was finished in 1999. Allegedly, Myanmar military forced whole villages to relocate, drafted villagers into forced labor and carried out a series of crimes, including murder, torture and rape.

The victims sued under a 213-year-old U.S. law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows aliens to sue individuals and companies in this country for abuses committed abroad. The Unocal case is the first to use this law to go after an American corporation for alleged abuses overseas.

Unocal is participating in a consortium headed by British Petroleum, which has begun construction of an oil pipeline in Afghanistan to carry crude oil from the Caspian Basin to Turkey.

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