Court Is Villagers' Only Hope

If an American company assists in and benefits from gross human rights abuses committed by its business partners, should it be held liable and accountable?

I'm an ethnic Karen from Burma now living in the United States. I fled my birthplace of Rangoon -- renamed Yangon by the military regime, which calls the nation Myanmar -- and spent several years on the Burma-Thai border interviewing villagers about atrocities they had experienced and witnessed at the hands of the Burmese military. As a leader during the 1988 student uprising, I had been held and tortured for three days by the military.

In Burma, under the military dictatorship, stories of rape, summary execution, torture and forced labor are common. But in the Tenasserim region, where the population is largely ethnic Karen, those stories often involve a natural-gas pipeline run by the French company Total and California-based Unocal. These companies brought the military in to help clear the pipeline corridor and to provide security. The military made the lives of villagers miserable, even unlivable.

Villagers were forced to carry heavy loads for hours and to grow food for soldiers even though they hardly had enough for their own families. Young women were raped. Families and entire villages were relocated for the sake of the pipeline. When one villager fled from forced labor on the project, soldiers went to his home and kicked his wife so hard she dropped their infant daughter into a cooking fire. The baby later died.

The villagers I interviewed in the area consistently connected these abuses to the presence of Westerners and work on the pipeline. The Burmese soldiers committed these atrocities on behalf of their pipeline partners.

After I began to see the pattern connecting the Yadana pipeline and these human rights abuses, I met two young American lawyers living in Thailand. I asked them, "Can't we do anything about this?" The answer, they said, was yes, and in 1996 we filed a lawsuit against Unocal for complicity in human rights violations under the Alien Tort Claims Act. That act was first used in a human rights context in the late 1970s when a brave Paraguayan woman named Dolly Filartiga sued her brother's torturer in federal court in New York.

In the years since then, federal judges have consistently found that a U.S. company like Unocal may indeed be held liable for aiding and abetting a human rights crime in another country. One federal judge in Los Angeles found that we presented evidence that Unocal "knew or should have known that [these human rights crimes] had occurred, were occurring and would continue to occur" for the benefit of the project.

But in May, the Department of Justice submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in our case saying that the Alien Tort Claims Act did not allow victims to bring human rights claims. Big business also has been campaigning against these kinds of lawsuits. Under this logic, decades of precedent, beginning with the Filartiga case, would be dismantled.

For our clients -- the villagers I met while I was hiding from the Burmese regime -- this law is the only hope for a modicum of justice. Burma, after all, does not have a functioning legal system. Crime and punishment is determined by the military alone.

Is it consistent with U.S. ethical sensibilities to allow an American company to aid and abet human rights crimes? If not, then the Unocal trial now scheduled to start in July in California should be allowed to go forward without interference from business or from the administration.

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