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.”
Aguinda v. Texaco, a class-action suit brought in November 1993 in New York by approximately 25,000 Indians from eight tribes, was one of the first cases to use the Alien Tort Claims Act against an American petroleum company for environmental damage abroad. The case has been consolidated with another suit, Jota v. Texaco, which was filed on similar grounds by Peruvians living downstream on the Napo River from the drilling operations. The suit alleges that from 1972 to 1992 Texaco Petroleum Company (TexPet) in Ecuador dumped an estimated 30 billion gallons of toxic waste — including benzene, mercury and lead, much of it in hundreds of unlined pools throughout the rainforest. In the complaint, plaintiffs say the pollution jeopardizes “their very existence as a people” by killing livestock and fish, and causing cancer, skin rashes, spontaneous abortions and other effects. Lawyers estimate cleanup costs to be over $1 billion.
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.
In June 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) did what Jafar Siddiq Hamzah did not live to do: it filed a lawsuit in the Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court against ExxonMobil Corporation and PT Arun for hiring Indonesian military forces responsible for torture, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, kidnapping, murder and genocide in Aceh. Lawyers also claim that ExxonMobil provided hired troops with facilities and equipment, including excavators that were used to dig mass graves, and buildings where illegally detained prisoners were tortured. The suit requests compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction to curtail ExxonMobil’s use of Indonesian security forces to protect their operations. The plaintiffs, eleven villagers from Aceh, are listed as John and Jane Does due to fears for their safety. On its website, ExxonMobil denies any responsibility for the actions of the military: “We are disturbed by any suggestion that ExxonMobil or its affiliate companies are in any way involved with alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Aceh.
Indonesia — an archipelago nation assembled in the wake of Dutch and British colonial rule — has never dealt kindly with independence movements. Its military invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999, for example, took the lives of at least 200,000 there. In 1989 Jakarta designated Aceh as a military operations zone — daerah operasi militer, or DOM — initiating a 10-year period of martial law in which thousands of people were killed or disappeared. “So many people were affected that, today, virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation — and who had no link to GAM at the time,” Human Rights Watch reported in August 2001. Although DOM was repealed in 1999, violence continues unabated.
Aceh, at the northern end of Sumatra, is a lush country of farmers, fishermen, tropical rainforest and endangered orangutan. Until the 1970s, rubber and coffee plantations dominated the economy, along with rice and tobacco, and timber products like paper pulp and palm oil. All that changed with the discovery in 1971 of even greater riches beneath the fertile soil — natural gas and oil. With facilities near the northern towns of Lhokseumawe and Lhoksukon, Acehnese operations made Indonesia the world’s leading exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). Bloomberg news reported in December 12, 2001, that the Indonesian government in Jakarta brings in an estimated US $1.7 billion from the operations in Aceh.
The oldest son of nine siblings, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah loved to watch courtroom dramas on state-run television, and in 1991 graduated from law school at Amir Hamzah University in the North Sumatran city of Medan. “He said, ‘Indonesian law is like a spiderweb. It just catches the small animals, but never tries to get a big animal.’ That’s why he really wanted to be a lawyer,” recalled his sister. Friends describe Hamzah as a man who smiled often, took pride in his recipe for fried rice, and worked tirelessly as an attorney for the Legal Aid Institute in Medan.
In March 2001, citing safety concerns, ExxonMobil suspended operations at the Arun natural gas fields in Aceh in North Sumatra — an Indonesian province torn by separatist violence. The closure lasted four months, and added up to a loss of $350 million. Production resumed that June after Indonesia increased security forces in the region. But ExxonMobil’s acceptance of government security measures has provoked a lawsuit, Doe v. ExxonMobil, filed against the company by anonymous Acehnese villagers. The suit alleges that, over the last 11 years, the company provided salaries and equipment to military forces responsible for human rights abuses in Aceh (pronounced “Ah-chay”), including sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and genocide.