By Abid AslamOne World
June 21, 2001
A labour rights group is suing ExxonMobil Corporation on charges it paid and directed government forces who committed atrocities while protecting the oil company's facilities in Indonesia. The world's largest oil company denies any wrongdoing.
The suit appears destined to join similar actions that have languished for years in the federal courts. It is the latest in a series of legal complaints brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to sue US companies in US courts over acts committed abroad.
The Washington-based International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) filed the charges against ExxonMobil on behalf of 11 people from Aceh. The villagers allege that they and their family members were murdered, tortured, raped, and kidnapped by members of an Indonesian military unit guarding the company's local operations.
The suit further charges that ExxonMobil Indonesia lent soldiers heavy excavation equipment that was then used to dig mass graves. Similar allegations surfaced in the business press here in late 1998.
Mobil Oil began exploiting natural gas reserves in Aceh, at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, in 1968. The company merged with Exxon in 1999. It operated the Arun gas field under license from Pertamina, Indonesia's state oil company.
The US company suspended its Aceh operations in March and evacuated its staff amid growing security concerns, prompting the government in Jakarta to deploy reinforcements to the region. It reportedly has been weighing returning, under pressure from Pertamina.
The suit alleges that ExxonMobil provided logistical and material support to Indonesian troops operating in the restive territory between 1989 and 1998, when former president Suharto declared it a "military operational area" and sustained an intense effort against armed separatists there.
"ExxonMobil understood from the day it decided to begin its project in Aceh that the army units assigned to protect company wells were notoriously brutal in their treatment of Indonesia's ethnic minorities," Terry Collingsworth, a senior ILRF lawyer, said in a statement.
"ExxonMobil condemns the violation of human rights in any form," the company responded in a statement Thursday. "As such, our company rejects and categorically denies any suggestion or implication that it or its affiliate companies were in any way involved with alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Aceh."
The Alien Tort Claims Act dates back to the 1700s. It has been used to sue US companies for alleged involvement or complicity in Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Few, if any, lawsuits based on the law have been disposed swiftly. Since the mid-1990s, for example, cases have dragged on against:
- Unocal, sued by Burmese nationals alleging human rights abuses stemming from a Unocal project in their country;
- Royal Dutch/Shell petroleum, accused of complicity in the 1995 detention and hanging of nine environmentalists from Nigeria's Ogoni community; and
- Texaco, dragged through the courts by indigenous communities from Ecuador's Amazon region.
Most suits brought under the act target alleged human rights violations. But in the case against Texaco, the indigenous communities sued on the grounds that the New York-based company's environmental practices departed from acceptable international standards to such an extent that they constituted a violation of 'the law of nations'.
Legal observers have yet to weigh in on the merits and prospects of the case against ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, developments on Thursday added to the company's woes.
First, environmentalists and rights activists urged the European Union in Brussels to suspend financial backing for the Chad- Cameroon oil and gas pipeline, threatening the ExxonMobil-led consortium that hopes to build and operate the controversial venture.
Second, two people in the US state of Tennessee who were injured in a car crash involving alleged drunken driving sued ExxonMobil and another company for selling the driver three dollars worth of petrol before he drove into their path.
And third, US distributors announced they were filing suit against the company, alleging antitrust violations (or monopolistic practices, in this case price-fixing) and racial discrimination.
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