Unocal Off the Hook?

Myanmar villagers still seek restitution for human rights violations.

Daniel J. Hughes

For now, California energy giant Unocal Corp. is not liable for the rape, murder, torture and forced labor that occurred during construction of the $1.2 billion, 40-mile Yadana natural gas pipeline in Burma, now Myanmar. On January 23, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney concluded that Unocal could not be held accountable for the actions of its subsidiaries — but ruled that the case could move forward if plaintiff attorneys used other means to prove libability.

The court found that victims’ testimony was well documented and that the evidence does suggest that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that they benefited from the practice.” The notoriously brutal Burmese military was contracted to act as security on the project for its builders: Unocal, French company Total and subsidiaries of both.

The federal case Doe v. Unocal was filed in 1996 under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) of 1789 on behalf of 15 villagers. They charged that Unocal understood the tactics being used by Burma’s violent military regime when collaborating on the project.

A Los Angeles federal district court agreed to hear the case a year later, determining that corporations could be held liable under ATCA for human rights abuses on foreign soil. After three years of discovery the case was dismissed in 2000, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it could be heard in civil court. Twenty-five cases have been filed using ATCA since 1980, but Unocal was the first company to stand trial in a civil suit on U.S. soil.

Villagers testified in Entrenched,” an investigative report by EarthRights International, that they were forced to relocate to the pipeline area, quarter soldiers, assist in sweeping for landmines, carry supplies and ammunition, and stand sentry duty to watch for insurgent attacks — labor referred to as peoples’ contributions” by the Burmese army. Threats and intimidation were used to gain compliance. A village headman reportedly met weekly with the military officers, offering gifts and receiving new orders for his village. 

Non-compliance with military orders led to shocking abuses. One uncooperative headman was buried up to his neck while fellow villagers were forced at gunpoint to kick and stomp on his head.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) described the situation at the pipeline as a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military, and other public officers.” The ILO’s most recent assessment confirmed that the situation continues to worsen.

Since the State Peace and Development Council government of Burma forcibly took power in 1988, profits from the use of forced labor and environmental destruction have been used to keep the regime in power. Statistics from the Burmese military reveal that peoples’ contributions” to rural development projects increased 25-fold between 1990 and 1996.

Judge Chaney concluded that the subsidiaries were common and legitimate” and that parent company Unocal is not liable because the subsidiaries have the financial resources to be held accountable under California law. But Anne Richardson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that Unocal’s subsidiaries did not have sufficient financial resources at the time the cases were filed.

If the court had ruled in favor of the villagers in the first phase of the trial, Unocal faced $1 billion in restitution monies. Dan Stromer, attorney for the plaintiffs, vowed to continue the fight for compensation even though Unocal lawyer Daniel Petrocelli lauded the ruling as a complete victory and vindicaton.”

Judith Chomsky, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said, If the case can go to a jury, the layers and layers of companies Unocal created to hide its responsibilities will be meaningless.”

Litigants revived ATCA amid rising human rights abuses perpetrated by U.S. companies on foreign soil. The act was passed in 1789 as part of the original Judiciary Act and asserted that district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort (crime) only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The Torture Victim Prevention Act, passed by Congress, bolstered the ATCA, which has been used to sue many U.S. corporations abroad, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Texaco and Gap.

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