On Saturday 19 June, the Burmese human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi ‘celebrated’ her 65th birthday, while still under house arrest. The Burmese military junta is easily identifiable as one of the continuing regimes perpetrating extreme human rights abuses, and exercising total control over the people of Burma.
What we hear less about, however, is the role corporations have played within the Burmese repressive state. In March 2005, Unocal a California-based oil company settled out of court with a group of Burmese plaintiffs in a case that sued Unocal for complicity in forced labour, rape and murder. According to the claim (filed in the US under the Alien Tort Statute – the same law being used to pursue the Khulumani litigation) Unocal knowingly hired the Burmese army units that used forced relocations, forced labour, rape, torture and murder to secure the route of an oil pipeline through Burma for the American oil company.
In 1997 the Doe v. Unocal case set a critical precedent for all future cases of corporate accountability when a US Federal District Court concluded that Unocal executives could be held legally responsible for violation of international human rights norms in countries outside the US, and that the US court system has the authority to adjudicate such claims.
According to EarthRights International: “After three years of discovery, the plaintiffs presented evidence demonstrating that, in the Court’s words, “Unocal knew that the 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.” The Court also concluded that “the evidence does suggest that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that [Unocal and Total, a co-venturer in the Yadana project] benefited from the practice” and that “The violence perpetrated against Plaintiffs is well documented in the deposition testimony filed under seal with the Court.”
The case was settled 2 months before the final trial date of June 2005, but the critical victories for corporate accountability had already been won. The Doe v. Unocal case secured, for groups such as Khulumani, that corporations could be held accountable through the US courts for violations that were once considered only the purview of individuals and states. This major victory must be acknowledged in the continuing struggle to establish clear, and strict precedents on what kind of business practices the international community continues to allow; or chooses to put a stop to.
When we think of 65-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi, and the repressive Burmese junta, let us not forget the corporations that associated with the regime, disregarding human beings for their profit bottom line. Let us ask who now provide the weapons and tanks? Who equips the junta to keep one of the world’s great human rights leaders imprisoned? And if we consider holding the leaders of the junta accountable, shouldn’t we also hold their suppliers accountable?
Thank you to the Doe v. Unocal case for breaking ground in the struggle for corporate accountability…Aluta Continua!