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Unocal Gets A Second Chance

by Oread Daily Monday, Feb. 17, 2003 at 9:03 AM



We can only guess why, but the Unocal Corp has been given another chance to oppose a lawsuit proceeding against the company alleging human rights abuses in Myanmar. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a two sentence decision to rehear the case. A three-judge panel ruled in September that claims by Myanmar villagers that Unocal aided soldiers who abused them should proceed to trial. The Myanmar military provided security at Unocal's Yadana natural gas pipeline and subjected local people to forced labor, rape, murder and torture, the lawsuit says. The case may determine whether U.S. companies can be held liable for human rights abuses abroad by parties acting on their behalf. ChevronTexaco Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. have been sued over alleged human rights violations in Nigeria and Indonesia, respectively.

The plaintiffs in John Doe I et. al. v. Unocal Corp. et al. are Burmese villagers who lived near the pipeline. Some were forced to work on the project by Unocal's pipeline partner, the notoriously repressive Burmese military. The remainder suffered other egregious abuses during the military's provision of "security" for the project. For example, two of the plaintiffs were sexually assaulted, and one, an infant, died after being kicked into a cooking fire.

A federal court in Los Angeles found last summer that "Plaintiffs present[ed] evidence demonstrating that before joining the Project, Unocal knew that the [Burmese] military had a record of committing human rights abuses; that the Project hired the military to provide security for the Project, a military that forced villagers to work and entire villages to relocate for the benefit of the Project; that the military, while forcing villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence; and that Unocal knew or should have known that the military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit these tortious acts." Attorney Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights fund said then, "This ruling means that there's absolutely no debate that private companies can be held liable for overseas human-rights abuses. U.S. companies will have to take a careful look at their conduct abroad."

Now the appeals court, says "Not." Why?

Meanwhile, another action is proceeding in state court. In a September ruling California Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney rejected an attempt by Unocal Corp. and two of its former officials, Roger Beach and John Imle, to dismiss claims that they facilitated and abetted human rights abuses on Unocal's Yadana Pipeline project in Burma. "There is no question that Unocal knowingly participated in a project with a military that committed widespread and brutal human rights violations for Unocal's benefit," said Richard Herz of EarthRights International, co-counsel for the plaintiffs said at the time of that decision. Unocal asked the state court to dismiss on a number of grounds, including that the U.S. Constitution prohibits these claims because they impede U.S. foreign policy. Judge Chaney rejected all of Unocal's arguments.

In fact, leading World Economic Forum (WEF) multinationals are fighting to avoid accountability for human rights violations. Unocal, Shell and ChevronTexaco, all WEF companies, are presently facing accusations in U.S. courts of complicity in human rights violations in cases brought by affected communities from India, Nigeria and Burma. The multinationals’ lobby groups have launched a behind-the-scenes effort in the U.S. Congress to ensure victims do not get their day in court. The multinationals are working to weaken the law through their lobby groups, the International Chamber of Commerce and National Foreign Trade Council. Presently, extreme cases of violations being brought under what is known as the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) face a long haul through the U.S. courts. Although such cases are not easy to bring, they are one of the few ways to hold companies accountable for their role in violating the rights of communities where they operate. The actions of the multinationals through their lobby aim to remove the right of non-U.S. citizens to seek redress for any torture, extrajudicial killing, forced labor, and genocide aided or committed by U.S. corporations. Matt Phillips, corporate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The WEF theme this year is ‘building trust’. If multinationals are so trustworthy, why are they worried about accountability laws? Governments must resist corporate lobbying and introduce clear rights for communities to secure justice in the face of multinational wrongs."

Sources: EarthRights International, CorpWatch, Burma Project, Corporate Social Responsibility News

The Oread Daily provides daily (Monday-Friday) progressive, left, anti-racist, anarchist, commie, activist, environmental, Marxist, revolutionary, etc. news and information from around the US and around the world.

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