Unocal Settling Suits in Burma

Burmese villagers are set for a win in their decade-long struggle with oil giant Unocal over its responsibility for violence by the Burmese military in connection with the company's construction of an oil pipeline. Terms of the agreement to settle the villagers' lawsuits are still confidential, but both sides say it will compensate the plaintiffs and communities in the pipeline region.

EarthRights International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others had sued California-based Unocal on behalf of 14 villagers, accusing Unocal and the French energy company Total of being complicit in the military's tortures, rapes, and murders and benefiting from forced relocation and forced labor. Unocal has denied these charges and claims the pipeline has improved the lives of 45,000 villagers living in the region (see YES! Indicators, Winter 2003).

EarthRights International said it was “thrilled” and “ecstatic” about the settlement, but it is unclear whether it will set a precedent for similar cases brought against U.S. corporations. The federal case was filed under the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, originally intended to prosecute piracy.

Similar cases awaiting trial under that law include two lawsuits by Nigerians against Royal Dutch/Shell and Chevron. Both accuse the oil companies of being complicit in the Nigerian military's intimidation and violence against environmental and human rights protestors.

Business and government interests have argued these cases could interfere with U.S. foreign policy. In 2002 the U.S. State Department encouraged the dismissal of a case between Exxon Mobil and citizens of Aceh province, Indonesia, on the grounds that it would harm U.S. business and set back the administration's war on terror. The citizens of Aceh claim abuses by the Indonesian military in the area surrounding Exxon's natural gas facilities, which the military guarded.

—Lisa Kundrat

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