A group of Burmese laborers who were forced to work on a pipeline project in Myanmar successfully filed suit against two co-venturers in the pipeline project, Unocal and Total. They claim that the two transnational corporations knew and profited from the fact that the military of Myanmar was using violence and intimidation to relocate villages, enslave farmers, commit rape and other torture, steal land and force persons to work on the pipeline. With the help of lawyers from organizations such as Earthrights International, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Labor Rights Fund, as well as several private law firms, the case continues to make its way through the channels of federal and state court as the first human rights case against a company to be adjudicated in the United States.
Since 1996, the case has set several important precedents that will affect similar human rights cases in the future. In September and October of 1996, Burmese refugees who had been forced to work on the Myanmar Pipeline Project filed two separate cases against Unocal on grounds of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a federal statute that allows foreign nationals to bring civil actions against U.S. citizens for violations of international law, and violation of California State law. The ATCA is important because many foreign nationals do not have the option to bring a case in their own country. For example, if the Burmese refugees had complained in Burma, they would probably have faced imprisonment, torture or death, since it is against the law to provide information to foreigners about the government. Before these two cases were consolidated, the judge held that the cases could go forward on the basis of this statute. In addition, the judge declared that transnational corporations and their executive officers could be held legally responsible for violations of international human rights law in foreign countries
The cases were consolidated in August 2000 in a California Federal District Court ruling that held that Unocal “knew or should have known that the Burmese military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit” human rights abuses but that Unocal could not be held liable because it did not control the actions of the Burmese military. In the same month Plaintiffs also filed in California State court with the help of several NGOs, including Earthrights International, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Labor Rights Fund.
On March 5, 2001, a Federal District Judge ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs and agreed that their claims should be heard in a California State court. Thus, while certain claims were on appeal in the Ninth Circuit, the California State court would be able to adjudicate claims based on California’s constitution and unfair business practice law.
On September 18, 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a landmark decision against Unocal reversing in part the decision of the California District Court that Unocal was not responsible for claims of rape and murder resulting from work on the pipeline. The court found that Unocal knowingly assisted the Myanmar military in the perpetration of human rights abuses and that forced labor is the “modern equivalent of slavery.” Counsel for Plaintiffs is confident that a jury will hold Unocal accountable for the human rights abuses and will award substantive damages.
This case is significant because it holds a transnational corporation accountable for human rights abuses from which it has profited. In addition, it sends a message to other transnational corporations that they will be responsible for human rights violations connected to their business ventures in countries with repressive governments.
Update: Unocal agreed to a confidential out-of-court settlement that was accepted by the court and closed the case on 13 April 2005. The company agreed to compensate the plaintiffs and provide funds for programs in Burma (Myanmar) to improve living conditions and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region.
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