In a major boost for human rights and corporate accountability activists, a federal appeals court has ruled that oil giant Unocal can be sued for forced labor, rape, and murder committed by government soldiers in charge of security for a major gas pipeline project in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
The decision by the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, announced Wednesday, overturned a previous court decision, which ruled that the victims of abuses committed by the military regime in Myanmar could not sue the California-based company even though they had produced evidence showing that Unocal knew about and benefited directly from the troops' conduct.
Two years ago, District Court Judge Stanley Lew issued a summary judgment in Unocal's favor, insisting that the plaintiffs would have to provide evidence that Unocal actually participated in or influenced the military's conduct or that it knowingly conspired with the military to commit the abuses.
But the appeals court said that Lew had applied too strict a legal standard in the case. "[B]ecause 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," said the court, which sent the case back to the district court for trial.
The human rights lawyers who brought the case said they had been vindicated and noted that the principle stated by the appeals court marked a major milestone in making corporations accountable for human rights abuses committed on their behalf.
"This ruling makes clear the important legal principle that those who participate in human rights violations can be held accountable," said Paul Hoffman, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) which helped bring the case, called 'John Doe et al versus Unocal et al.' "It sends a clear signal to multinational corporations that they may not turn a blind eye to human rights violations committed with their knowledge and encouragement."
The case was originally brought by CCR and EarthRights International in 1999 on behalf of 15 Burmese plaintiffs, mostly members of the Karen and Mon ethnic minorities living in or near the path of the US$1.2 billion Yadana pipeline that pumps gas from off-shore fields in the Andaman Sea through Myanmar into Thailand. Construction by a consortium consisting of Unocal, France's Total, and the military government's state oil company began in 1992 and was completed three years ago.
Activists charged that the project involved the forcible relocation of villages, forced labor, and other serious abuses, including rape and murder committed by government troops deployed to protect the pipeline's construction.
Plaintiffs acted under a 200-year-old law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, that permits non-resident foreigners to sue foreign and domestic individuals or companies in the U.S. for abuses committed abroad. The lawyers argued that Unocal should be held liable for abuses committed by the army which, according to their legal theory, acted as paid agents of the company of the consortium. They contended that, because Unocal hired military units to provide security for the project and knew about its tactics, the company should be made to pay for the harm done.
In their initial presentation the lawyers offered documentary evidence, including a cable from the state department, which showed that the company paid the army for security and consulted with it on a daily basis.
Unocal has strongly denied that it knew about or sanctioned abuses committed by the military in carrying out the project. When it did find out, it took remedial action, according to Unocal spokesmen.
In its ruling, the appeals court also rejected Unocal's claim that the lawsuit was barred because it would interfere with U.S. foreign policy toward Myanmar.
The state department last month asked a federal judge to dismiss a similar case brought by victims of abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in Aceh province against ExxonMobil on the grounds that trying the case could harm Washington's anti-terrorist campaign by discouraging the cooperation of the Indonesian military and discouraging U.S. investment there. The judge in the case has yet to rule on the request.
Several other cases brought by plaintiffs against multinational oil companies for abuses committed by government security forces are being heard in U.S. courts.