[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]



On March 26, 1997, a US federal court rejected Unocal's motion to dismiss 
the lawsuit against them by 14 victims of alleged human rights abuses and 
set a groundbreaking legal precedent in the field of international law.  
In a 38-page written decision, Judge Richard A.Paez declared that 
transnational corporations as well as their executive officers can be 
held legally responsible for the violation of international human rights 
law in foreign countries, and that US courts have the authority to 
adjudicate such claims.  Plaintiffs are represented by a team of lawyers 
from EarthRights International (ERI), Center for Constitutional Rights 
(CCR), Hadsell & Stormer and the Law Offices of Paul Hoffman.

Equally significant is the strong language used by the court in its 
rejection of  company arguments that only "governments" violate 
international law thus shielding private companies from subject matter 
jurisdiction. For example, the court declares that "the allegations of 
forced labor in this case are sufficient to constitute an allegation of 
participation in slave trading.  Although there is no allegation that 
SLORC is physically selling Burmese citizens to the private defendants, 
plaintiffs allege that, despite their knowledge of SLORC's practice of 
forced labor, both in general and with respect to the pipeline project, 
the private defendants have paid and continue to pay SLORC to provide 
labor and security for the pipeline, essentially treating SLORC as an 
overseer, accepting the benefit of and approving the use of forced 
labor.  These allegations are sufficient to establish subject matter 
jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Claims Act."

Similarly, the court recognized arguments that SLORC acts as an agent or 
even co-conspirator with the oil companies and that this relationship is 
sufficient to hold oil companies responsible for SLORC acts in US court.  
The opinion states:  "Here, plaintiffs allege that SLORC and MOGE are 
agents of the private defendants; that the defendants are joint 
venturers, working in concert with one another; and that the defendants 
have conspired to commit the violations of international law alleged in 
the complaint in order to further the interests of the Yadana gas 
pipeline project.  Additional factual inquiry is not necessary.  
Plaintiffs have alleged that the private plaintiffs were and are jointly 
engaged with the state officials in the challenged activity, namely 
forced labor and other human rights violations in furthurance of the 
pipeline project.  These allegations are sufficient to support 
subject-matter jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Claims Act."

Finally, the court rejected Unocal's argument that granting jurisdiction 
over the suit would interfere with the US government's present policy on 
Burma, which Unocal stated was to refrain "from taking precipitous steps, 
such as prohibiting all American investment, that might serve only to 
isolate the Burmese Government and actually hinder efforts toward 
reform."  In rejecting this argument, the court first questioned Unocal's 
interpretation of US government policy, stating its belief that the 
sanctions debate "involved a dispute over whether to promptly impose 
unilateral sanctions on Burma...or refrain from immediately imposing 
sanctions to allow the President to work with other nations to develop a 
multilateral strategy to improve conditions in Burma..."  Even if the 
court were to accept the government's policies as Unocal framed them, 
however, it states that "plaintiffs essentially contend that Unocal, 
rather than encouraging reform through investment, is knowingly taking 
advantage of and profiting from SLORC's practice of using forced labor 
and forced relocation, in concert with other human rights violations 
including rape and other torture, to further the interests of the Yadana 
gas pipeline project.  Whatever the Court's final decision in this action 
may be, it will not reflect on, undermine or limit the policy 
determinations made by the coordinate branches with respect to human 
rights violations in Burma."

The lawsuit, filed in the Federal District Court of Los Angeles on 
October 3, 1996, seeks a halt to human rights violations on behalf of all 
victims of abuses committed by the pipeline consortium, including 
violations committed by SLORC soldiers acting as agents for the oil 
companies.  The 14 plaintiffs also seek monetary compensation for the 
specific abuses they have suffered which include extrajudicial killings, 
forced labor, forced relocation of villages, rape and other torture, 
forced portering and crimes against humanity.  Since the court held that 
defendants SLORC and MOGE were entitled to sovereign immunity and thus 
shielded from suit, remaining defendants include Unocal, Total and Unocal 
Executive Officers John Imle and Roger Beach.

For more information, contact:

 	EarthRights International
	P.O. Box 83
	Kanchanaburi 71000
	tel/fax:  66 34 624275
	email:  earth@xxxxxxxxxxx