Tag Archives: Alien Tort Claims Act

On Aung San Suu Kyi’s Birthday – Remember the Victories of Doe v. Unocal

22 Jun

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!

Not Nigeria vs Netherlands – the Ogoni vs Royal Dutch Shell!

12 Jun

Writer, poet and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in Nigeria on November 10, 1995. He was the leader of a non-violent movement of about 50,000 Ogoni people fighting for the protection of the Niger Delta that was being desecrated by the operations of major oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell that has the largest operation in Nigeria. Shell Oil commenced its operations in the Niger Delta in 1958.

Mr Saro-Wiwa’s campaign advocated for protection from oil spills, from the destruction of mangroves to make way for oil pipelines, and from pollution of the environment by the by-products of continuous gas flaring operations. They also complained that they had no share in the wealth being generated from oil extracted from their own land. Shell was eventually forced to quit Ogoniland in 1993. The outrage generated by the Abacha military government’s charade trial and execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight others (the MOSOP Nine) contributed to the fall of that government.

Ten plaintiffs including Saro-Wiwa’s brother and son used the Alien Tort Claims Act in a New York court to charge Royal Dutch Shell with complicity in torture, wrongful killings and human rights abuses. Just over a year ago, on 8 June 2009, a settlement was reached with Shell after a thirteen year long legal battle and three weeks of mediation. The outcome was that Shell paid out US$15,5 million to establish a Trust Fund to compensate families of the executed for their loss and to assist in providing resources for education, social services and small business enterprise support to the Ogoni People in the region. The settlement represents only about four hours or about 0,5% of Shell’s record $31.4 billion profit in 2008.

The Alien Tort Claims Act is the same legislation being used by Khulumani Support Group in its lawsuit against multinational companies — which originally also included Royal Dutch Shell for supporting the apartheid regime by supplying it with oil in defiance of the United Nations oil embargo against the apartheid government.

Last year the lawyers for the Saro-Wiwa plaintiffs said “This settlement confirms that multinational corporations can no longer act with the impunity they once enjoyed.”

If the South Africa Apartheid Litigation is won in court, the impunity of multinational corporations such as Shell, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, IBM and Rheinmettal will be further curbed.

Acknowledgment:

Remember Saro-Wiwa
c/o PLATFORM
7 Horselydown Lane
Tower Bridge
London SE1 2LN
+44 (0)207 357 0055

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