Lawsuits Target Energy Giants: Myanmar (Burma) — Doe v. Unocal

By Jennifer Huang | World Power I: Business & Law

Page 8 of 11

The Doe v. Unocal case managed to get a step further than Aguinda in August 2001, when Judge Victoria Chaney ruled that the case could be heard in California state court, after its dismissal in federal court.

The case, originally brought before Federal Judge Ronald Lew in Southern California by 15 unnamed villagers from Myanmar’s Tenasserim region, asserts Unocal’s complicity with murder, torture, forced labor and forced relocation during work on its Yadana pipeline project through the area.

Soldiers hired by the enterprise — a joint venture between Unocal, the French company Total and Myanmar’s SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) government — allegedly committed the acts.

Among other arguments, Unocal reasoned that the pressed labor could be considered “mandatory public service” akin to a Florida statute requiring six days of work or $3 from every man circa 1916.

The court denied that argument, writing that the Florida law “is hardly analogous to the nature of the forced labor utilized by SLORC in recent years.”

Judge Lew’s opinion also stated that Unocal “expressed concern that the Myanmar government was utilizing forced labor in connection with the Project. In turn, the military made efforts to conceal its use of forced labor.”

The opinion included a 1995 exchange between John Imle, president of Unocal, and Greenpeace Tropical Forest Campaign Director Pamela Wellner, that showed Unocal knew the military used forced labor but subverted those concerns to the security of the project.

According to the document, Imle said, “What I’m saying is that if you threaten the pipeline there’s gonna be more military. If forced labor goes hand and glove with the military yes there will be more forced labor. For every threat to the pipeline there will be a reaction.”

In a phone interview from his office in Southern California, Unocal spokesman Barry Lane denied any forced labor on the pipeline project, and said that no villages were forced to relocate. The military isn’t even being used for security, he added, saying Unocal insisted porters be paid when the company heard they were compelled to work. He asserted that the population along the pipeline route has actually grown because of economic opportunities there.

“Our biggest regret is that there aren’t 100 Yadana projects in Burma, because you’d be able to multiply the positive impact by 100 times,” he said. “They had self-imposed isolation for more than 20 years, and it didn’t bring about any change at all.”

Lew dismissed the suit in a summary judgment, finding that while Unocal had known of and benefited from illegal military activity, it did not encourage those acts and could not be held responsible for them.

In writing his opinion, Lew noted, “[t]he evidence does suggest that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that the Joint Venturers benefited from the practice. However, because such a showing is insufficient to establish liability under international law, Plaintiffs’ claim against Unocal for forced labor under the Alien Tort Claims Act fails as a matter of law.”

The federal dismissal is currently under appeal at the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. The International Labor Rights Fund has also re-filed in California state court, where it is awaiting a decision on Unocal’s motion for summary judgment.

Roe v. Unocal, a similar but separate case, is being coordinated with Doe and has shared motions and rulings.

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