Laws of Empire

David Moberg

In 1996, Burmese peasant villagers filed a lawsuit against Unocal. They charged the U.S. oil company with knowingly collaborating with the country’s repressive military government to forcibly relocate peasants living in the path of Unocal’s oil pipeline project. The military used these peasants as slave labor to clear a path for the pipeline and build service roads. The suit claimed that those who refused to work were often killed, beaten, tortured, or raped. Documents filed in the case indicate that Unocal had been well-informed by its advisors of how the military operated, and knew of its history of using slave labor.

The villagers, who had fled to Thailand, had no legal recourse under the Burmese military dictatorship, but they did have an opportunity to seek justice in the United States, where they filed suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) with the help of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF).

Now the Bush administration, acting on behalf of major multinational corporations, is planning to block that rare option for legal redress of international human rights violations. On May 8, the Justice Department filed a brief in the Unocal case, arguing that ATCA is being misused and poses a threat to the nation’s foreign policy and fight against terrorism. This is just the latest example of the Bush administration attempting to undermine international law in order to grant U.S. corporations and U.S. government personnel legal immunity for their actions overseas — except when it serves those corporate interests.

Originally enacted in 1789, ATCA allows federal courts to hear complaints by foreigners about violations of the law of nation” or treaties signed by the United States. It lay dormant until 1980, when the family of a man tortured to death in Paraguay brought a lawsuit against the responsible policeman, who then was living in the United States. Within a few years, plaintiffs used the law to accuse U.S. corporations of violating human rights, including charging Coca-Cola and Drummon Coal with collaborating with Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries to kill or intimidate union leaders. Such lawsuits prompted the National Foreign Trade Council (which successfully fought a Massachusetts law banning government purchases from companies doing business in Burma) and USA Engage (a major corporate lobby for expanded international trade agreements) to launch a campaign to prevent the use of ATCA to hold multinational corporations responsible for egregious violations of rights. In George W. Bush, these multinational business lobbies found a willing partner.

Only 25 ATCA cases have been filed since 1980, and no corporation has ever been convicted of violating the act. Yet corporate lawyers in their legal briefs portray ATCA lawsuits as a danger to all international investment and a threat to national security. ILRF executive director Terry Collingsworth argues that the courts have thus far restricted ATCA charges to companies that knowingly participated in rights violations, not those that have a mere presence in a country where rights are violated. Consequently, ATCA lawsuits are not likely to discourage foreign investment or interfere with the fight against terrorism.

But the suits may discourage multinational corporations from joining in human rights abuses. Indeed, ATCA is one of the few legal venues that victims of corporate-abetted terrorism have to seek redress. To argue, as a State Department legal advisor did in a case against Exxon Mobil’s operations in Indonesia, that the competitiveness of U.S. business depends on protecting them from suits over extreme violations of fundamental rights is absurd and immoral. In fact, were it true, it would be a damning admission about what many corporations do in their global operations.

Simultaneously, the Bush administration is insisting U.S. soldiers and officials be granted immunity to any action by the International Criminal Courts. In addition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Brussels if Belgium didn’t get rid of an already narrowly drawn law that permits the prosecution in Belgium of atrocities that are committed in foreign countries. In short, the Bush administration doesn’t want its new imperial rule subject to any legal constraint. 

The suit claimed that those who refused to work were often killed, beaten, tortured, or raped.
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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