Lawsuits Target Energy Giants: The Bigger Picture

By Jennifer Huang | World Power I: Business & Law

Page 6 of 11

The ExxonMobil case is the latest in a growing number of lawsuits filed against transnational energy corporations in U.S. courts alleging complicity in human rights abuses abroad.

The filings reflect the complicated business of oil drilling and profit-making in countries where corrupt governments, brutal military forces and ethnic and economic tensions are often caught in an ongoing cycle of violence. Inevitably, it is poor, rural communities -- like the plaintiffs in these cases -- who say they suffer the most injury from military crackdowns and environmental destruction. Active cases around the world include:

  • Doe v. Unocal and Roe v. Unocal, alleging forced labor, torture and wrongful death during the building of the Yadana natural gas pipeline through Burma;
  • Aguinda v. Texaco and Jota v. Texaco, accusing the oil company of improper handling and dumping of toxic waste leading to large-scale environmental destruction in the Oriente region of Ecuador and neighboring Peru;
  • Wiwa v. Shell and Wiwa v. Anderson, asserting Royal Dutch Shell's complicity in the wrongful death of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa;
  • Bowoto v. Chevron, charging that Chevron (Now ChevronTexaco) was involved in the massacre of Nigerian protesters on an oil platform.

The suits have come to the United States under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law that gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over tort cases "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States," if the defendant has a presence in the U.S.

On the books since 1789, the little-used act originally took aim at piracy, but was dusted off in 1979 in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala. The plaintiffs, a Paraguayan couple, successfully sued a police officer in Paraguay for the murder of their son.

Since then, charges of human rights abuse have been brought against military officials and dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Radovan Karadzic and Li Peng.

While million- and even billion-dollar awards have been won in the Marcos and Karadzic cases, the victory is moral rather than financial.

According to Judith Chomsky, a lawyer on the Karadzic, Unocal, Chevron and Shell cases (and sister-in-law to the activist/academic Noam Chomsky), "We got a $4.5 billion judgement ... and our chances of collecting on this award are distant. [But] the jury awards not only said, 'We believe that you're telling the truth about what happened, and we appreciate the depth of your suffering, but we also recognize the evil of the wrongdoer.'"

Presently, there is little precedent in naming corporations as defendants using the ATCA, and few rulings. But regardless of their outcome, Chomsky said the suits are a way to call attention to the role the fossil fuel companies play in oppressive regimes, pulling them onto an international stage.

She said the lawsuits are also one of the few ways to hold corporations accountable in countries where host governments not only fail to enforce the law, but participate in the crime.

"Except for the possibility that they might be subject to an international criminal court, it's fair to say that there's no body of law that really constrains them," she said.

According to Naomi Roht-Arriaza, a professor of international human rights law at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law, international law has very few means of enforcement.

The Alien Tort Claims Act makes the U.S. federal courts one avenue; others include the International Court of Justice at the Hague, regional courts like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or diplomatic action.

And the recent U.S. withdrawal from a treaty to create a new international war crimes court has narrowed options even further.

But Oronto Douglas, a lawyer on the Bowoto case, sees the lawsuits as nothing less than the next tactic in a nonviolent battle.

"Because we cannot do otherwise, we cannot become violent, we have decided that we have to take this trouble -- the battle -- into the homes and into the houses and into countries where these corporations and companies come from," he said. "It is a necessary, logical step to take in our struggle for justice."

The cases have met with varying degrees of success.

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