Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 3, Number 20 June 22 - 28, 2003 Quezon City, Philippines
Ponders if U.S. Firm Liable for Abuse Abroad
FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday
in what could be a landmark case to determine if U.S. corporations can be sued
for human rights abuses that occur abroad.
hearing stems from two 1996 lawsuits against Unocal Corp. which claimed that
villagers in rural Myanmar, formerly Burma, were subjected to forced labor,
rape, torture and murder by the military during construction of a natural gas
pipeline partially funded by the oil company.
lawsuits claimed violations of state law and the law of nations under the Alien
Tort Claims Act, a once obscure statue written in 1789 that allows foreign
nationals to sue for human rights abuses in U.S. courts.
case before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has galvanized parties on
both sides, with numerous briefs filed in support of the plaintiffs and Unocal.
isn't the first (such case), but it has garnered a lot of attention,'' said
Laurel Fletcher, acting director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of
California, Berkeley. ``It has raised squarely the issue: What can U.S.
companies do on foreign soil?''
is appealing to an 11-judge appeals panel of the Ninth Circuit Court a decision
handed down by a three judge panel of the same court in September 2002 that said
the company could be sued.
three judge panel, which overturned a lower court judge's ruling that the
company could not be sued, compared Unocal's actions in Myanmar to the German
armaments firm Krupp which used slave labor during World War 2 and was tried for
war crimes afterward. It said a jury should be allowed to decide if Unocal was
liable for human rights violations.
State Department has asked the court to dismiss the entire case. In its brief,
the Bush administration expressed concern that similar suits could be brought
against some of its closest allies in the country's war on terror. It also cited
the possibility that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay could file suits against the
Segundo, California-based Unocal has remained steadfast that it holds no
responsibility for the host nations' actions. Attorneys for the plaintiffs'
argue that Unocal knowingly entered into a joint agreement with an oppressive
military regime with a suspect human rights record.
Los Angeles Times quoted plaintiffs in the suit as saying the military abuses
began only after the pipeline construction began.
they came and built the pipeline, there were no soldiers,'' said one woman
identified as Jane Doe 2, ``When the pipeline came, it destroyed our lives. We
lost our home. We lost our livelihood. We lost everything.''
the Ninth Circuit appeals panel rules in favor of the plaintiffs some experts
say the decision will be a financial blow to Unocal and host of other
multinational companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp. that face
say a ruling against Unocal would have a limited impact. ``The decision would be
binding only in the Ninth Circuit,'' said Fred Lampert, a business law professor
at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
Unocal has been fighting the lawsuit for nearly seven years.