Unocal Settles Burma Lawsuit

2004-12-18
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WASHINGTON—Unocal Corp. has settled a landmark lawsuit alleging that the American oil giant was complicit in human rights abuses against Burmese villagers while building a gas pipeline during the 1990s.

The petition argues that Unocal, based in El Segundo, California, should be held to account for the alleged conscription of villagers during construction of the U.S. $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline.

"At this moment in time the settlement has not been finalized, so I cannot say anything now,” Ka Hsaw Wa, co-director of the nonprofit group and plaintiffs' representative Earth Rights International, told RFA’s Burmese service.

But asked if the 1996 lawsuit against Unocal would now be withdrawn, he replied, "Yes, that is the understanding."

Landmark lawsuit

The settlement marks the first time any case has been brought against a U.S. company under the Alien Tort Claims Act. That law permits foreigners to sue in U.S. courts companies that allegedly committed human rights abroad.

Unocal has consistently denied that any abuses occurred.

In a joint statement carried on Earth Rights International’s Web site, the two sides announced that "although the terms are confidential, the settlement in principle will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care, and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region."

...The settlement in principle will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care, and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region.

"These initiatives will provide substantial assistance to people who may have suffered hardships in the region. Unocal reaffirms its principle that the company respects human rights in all of its activities and commits to enhance its educational programs to further this principle. Plaintiffs and their representatives reaffirm their commitment to protecting human rights," the statement said.

The case against Unocal had been scheduled to go to trial in June before a California state court, and a separate action was being fought out in federal courts. Both cases are now settled.

Piracy law brought to bear

Human rights lawyers representing 14 unnamed villagers also alleged that Burmese soldiers murdered a baby, raped women and girls, and forced people out of their homes to clear the pipeline's route.

The lawsuits against the oil and gas giant have been considered a key test for human rights activists seeking to hold multinational corporations responsible in U.S. courts for alleged atrocities committed abroad.

Unocal is the junior partner in the Yadana gas project, which is mainly run by the French energy firm Total. Thailand's PTT and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise of Burma also hold stakes in the project. Total and PTT operate the pipeline.

The relevant U.S. law in this instance is the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act—enacted to prosecute pirates and reinstated in 2002 by a federal appeals court.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that certain types of cases involving violations of international law could be pursued in federal courts under that law.

Pressure on Western companies with links to Burma intensified after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained in May last year, drawing stepped-up Western sanctions.

Original reporting in Burmese

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