You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Unocal Settles Landmark Human Rights Case with Burmese Villagers

Media Options

A ground-breaking settlement was reached in the long-running human rights case brought by Burmese villagers against the energy giant Unocal. We speak with the executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability. [includes rush transcript]

A ground-breaking settlement has been reached in the long-running human rights case brought by Burmese villagers against the energy giant Unocal.

A dozen Burmese villagers sued Unocal in the California courts, claiming that the company was aware of and supported slave labor, murder, rape and forced relocation of villagers by the Burmese military during the construction of an oil pipeline from Burmese oil fields to Thailand.

The allegations were taken up by EarthRights International, the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the International Labor Rights Fund, which brought the case on the villagers’ behalf, using the alien tort claims act.

Human rights activists have hailed the settlement as a landmark test in holding multinational companies responsible in the United States for atrocities committed abroad.

Related Story

StoryApr 12, 2023“Terrorism from the Sky”: Burmese Junta Bombs Civilians, Killing 100, Escalating Attack on Resistance
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Sandra Coliver, executive director of Center for Justice and Accountability, based in San Francisco. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SANDRA COLIVER: Pleased to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this case? Who brought the lawsuit? We’re just hearing drips and drabs. It hasn’t been discussed in full what the settlement is.

SANDRA COLIVER: That’s right. The actual settlement has not been confirmed, but the case has been brought on behalf of the villagers in Burma that had been living along a gas pipeline built by Unocal and its partners. The organizations involved are the Center for Constitutional Rights, Earth Rights International, and the International Labor Rights Fund.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the people that they brought the lawsuit on behalf of, these 15 Burmese villagers?

SANDRA COLIVER: The suit is brought by these villagers who were among those who were enslaved by the Burmese military as the Unocal and its partners were building this pipeline. In addition to being enslaved and conscripted into clearing the dense forest around which the pipeline had to be built, the Burmese military also terrorized the villages if the young men refused to work for free, under very harsh circumstances. The terror included raping the women, killing people, and insuring that the men could not run away from this enforced labor. Now, none of this is directly attributed to Unocal employees. Rather, what the district court found is that there was substantial evidence that Unocal knowingly assisted the perpetration of these crimes. That was the key issue — was Unocal as a corporation aiding and abetting the commission of human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when exactly was this lawsuit brought?

SANDRA COLIVER: It was filed in 1996. The pipeline was finally completed in 1998. Unocal has been sort of trying to remedy what it realizes was a bad deal from the start. They have been saying, well, that by being in Burma, they have improved the economy around the gas pipeline, but indeed, with this settlement, they have undertaken to provide education and assistance for the community and reparations for those who were most hideously injured.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s been about eight years. What do you think made Unocal decide right now to settle?

SANDRA COLIVER: There was scheduled to be a hearing at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this last Monday. That would be a hearing on the theory of aiding and abetting. The US government had filed a brief in this case arguing that corporations should not be held liable pursuant to a theory of aiding and abetting because this theory would discourage foreign investment. If corporations could be held responsible for aiding and abetting human rights violations, they would be less inclined to invest overseas, and that would interfere with the discretion of the US government to promote its foreign policy objectives by encouraging robust investment. So, what the US government was saying is that they needed to have the flexibility to tolerate the commission of human rights abuses by corporations in order to promote their foreign policy. Well, a bankrupt argument at best. It’s frightening to think that the government would argue that they need the flexibility to authorize human rights violations in order to conduct their foreign policy. It’s very clear that the government has a wide range of methods available to it to conduct foreign policy, but it’s also very clear that certain activities are simply beyond the pale. One of those that the courts have clearly established is that US corporations cannot engage in corruption, in this country or overseas. The US government has made very clear that companies in the US, and US actors, cannot engage in terrorism. Why should human rights violations be different? This was the argument that was going to be advanced Monday, and my interpretation is that Unocal realized that was a bankrupt argument.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, can you talk about the Alien Tort Claims Act, what this act is, and the significance of its use in this case?

SANDRA COLIVER: The basis of this lawsuit is the Alien Tort Claims Act, which was adopted in 1789. The law provides that non-US citizens are entitled to sue in US federal courts for violations of the law of nations. That law was little used until 1980 when the Center for Constitutional Rights used it in a lawsuit brought by the family of a Paraguayan man who was tortured to death by a Paraguayan official found in the United States. The courts condoned that use of the law, and just this year in June, the Supreme Court further emphasized that that law can be applied for modern-day human rights violations. What the court said is that originally it was anticipated that the law would be used against piracy and attacks on ambassadors and slave trading, and that in the modern day, the same law could be used for torts in violation of the law of nations that had received the same degree of consensus and definition as had those three torts in 1789. So, as long as there’s a tort that has the same degree of consensus as the court of piracy and the same degree of definition, that tort can be the basis of a civil lawsuit. I want to make sure that since Unocal was the first lawsuit filed against a corporation under this theory, and since 1996, about 40 cases have been filed. Now, the corporations have argued that this law opens up a floodgate. I want to make clear that the courts have been very responsible in kicking out these lawsuits if they don’t meet a very high standard of legal and factual proof. So, the courts have kicked these cases out for forum non-convenience, meaning inconvenient forum, that the lawsuit should be filed in the country where the violations occurred, in Burma or Nigeria, but there has to be an effective legal system in order to dismiss on that basis. The courts have kicked out cases for statute of limitations, for political questions, for act of state, meaning that the lawsuit would interfere with the US foreign policy interests in the narrow way. And they have kicked out these cases just saying that the allegations are not sustained by even a sufficient degree of proof for them to go forward to a jury. So, out of the 40 cases that have been filed, Unocal was the first one to get this far along, and there are only six others that have so far survived an initial motion to dismiss. That’s a very small percentage of cases against corporations for their activities in foreign countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it true that one of the cases that’s still going forward is the case against Chevron for the involvement in the killing of villagers in the Niger delta.

SANDRA COLIVER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sandra Coliver, in this groundbreaking case, in this settlement that we’re just hearing about right now, how much are the victims going to get, the plaintiffs going to get?

SANDRA COLIVER: The terms of the settlement are confidential. And they are still being worked out through next February. We’re assuming, I’m assuming it’s in the millions, and millions will go far. It could be tens of millions. I really don’t have any information.

AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian of London is reporting that Unocal’s legal costs alone are estimated to be $25 million.

SANDRA COLIVER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Sandra Coliver, a groundbreaking settlement has been reached in the long running human rights case brought by Burmese villagers against the energy giant Unocal.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Inuits to Sue U.S. Over Global Warming

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation