A federal appeals court ruled recently that Unocal, the giant US oil company based in California, may be held legally responsible for forced labor, rape and murder committed by Burmese soldiers during the construction of a major Unocal gas pipeline project completed in 1999. The decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling two years ago by a federal judge who said that although Unocal may have “known about the abuses” there was no evidence of their “active participation,” according to United Press International.
A lawsuit was originally filed against Unocal in 1996 by EarthRights and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of 15 unnamed Burmese plaintiffs. The suit, which was refiled recently in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleges that Burmese soldiers charged with guarding the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline forcibly relocated villages, drafted villagers into forced labor and committed murder, torture and rape against people of the Karen and Mon ethnic minorities living in or near the route of the pipeline, according to Inter Press Service. The plaintiffs argue that Unocal should be held liable for the abuses committed by the soldiers, who were part of a notoriously repressive military regime, because they were hired by the company to provide security. “Because Unocal knew the acts 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,” the court said according to Inter Press Service. A trial is now scheduled to begin Feb. 4 in Los Angeles.
Human rights lawyers are saying that the judgment “marks a major milestone” in holding corporations accountable for human rights abuses tied to their activities abroad, according to Inter Press Service. Other similar cases are pending against Royal Dutch Shell for alleged abuses committed by the Nigerian Army against the Ogoni people in the Niger-Delta, against ChevronTexaco by indigenous people in Ecuador for destroying their land with oil leaks and toxic waste and against ExxonMobil for abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in Aceh province, according to Inter Press Service.
Media Resources: United Press International 9/19/02; Inter Press Service 9/20/02