A History Of Firsts

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EarthRights was founded with a bold vision: that a U.S. corporation could be held accountable for human rights abuses committed abroad. This had never happened before. So when EarthRights filed a lawsuit in 1995 against the oil company Unocal for human rights abuses committed in Burma–and eventually declared victory for our clients ten years later by settling with Unocal–we marked two huge “firsts.” A U.S. company had never paid foreign victims of human rights abuses before.  

Twenty-five years after that first lawsuit was filed, we’re moving forward with another “first” in U.S. legal history: we’re arguing the first climate accountability case in state court. EarthRights is representing Boulder County, the city of Boulder, and San Miguel County in a lawsuit against Suncor Energy and Exxon Mobile to hold them accountable for the harms that their actions created. These are local harms, and local governments will end up shouldering the economic burden to pay for infrastructure and environmental damages. This case is rightfully being heard in local court where we’re ready to make history once again.  

In celebration of our 25th Anniversary this year, let’s look back at some of the many other “firsts” EarthRights has been a part of from here in the U.S. to  South America and Southeast Asia. 

  • Corporate accountability: EarthRights’ landmark case, Doe v. Unocal was the first time a U.S. corporation was held accountable for harms that occurred outside the U.S., laying the groundwork for so many of our victories to come. It was also the first time a U.S. company paid restitution to foreign victims of abuses. Because of his work documenting human rights abuses along the Yadana pipeline, in 1999, our Executive Director, Ka Hsaw Wa became the first Goldman Environmental Prize winner from Myanmar.
  • At the Supreme Court: Jam v. IFC was not only our first Supreme Court victory, but it was the first time a community sued the World Bank Group in U.S. federal courts for damages caused by one of its projects. No bank is above the law; the people of Mundra proved it. 
  • Nonprofit LEED-certification: In 2017, we opened the Mitharsuu Center for Leadership and Justice in Chiang Mai, the first Platinum LEED-certified building in Thailand by a nonprofit organization. As our co-founder, Katie Redford said, “This building is the living example of our belief that you don’t have to trash the planet or destroy peoples’ lives to create something beautiful and strong where we can all live together.”
  • Indigenous legal training in Peru: In 2016 in Lima, Peru, EarthRights hosted the inaugural Indigienous Legal Advocates Seminar— a first of its kind legal seminar for indigenous legal advocates from across Latin America. 
  • Landmark liability case in Myanmar: In Myanmar in 2020, we won a landmark case with the Dawei Probono Lawyers Network against a Thai mining company that damaged a farm and destroyed approximately 882 betel nut trees. This is the first time that a company in Myanmar has been forced to pay compensation to a community due to development-related harms.
  • Malaysian Human Rights complaint: We spearheaded the filing of a complaint in the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) in 2014 against Mega First, the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam. This is the first case of its kind filed with SUHAKAM. 
  • National convening on energy issues: We planned the first National Energy Conference for civil society in Myanmar in 2018. This conference represented Myanmar’s first national-level convening of civil society and community leaders working on energy-related issues allowing for a transfer of ideas, knowledge, and collaboration of the leading activists in the country. 
  • Launching ICAR: In 2010, along with other leading human rights organizations,we launched the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), whose mission is to identify and promote robust frameworks for corporate accountability, strengthen current measures, and defend existing laws, policies, and legal precedents
  • Justice for Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon: EarthRights represented the Achuar people of Peru in a landmark case against Occidental Petroleum. This was the first lawsuit to move forward in the United States for pollution a company caused in another country. After twelve years of litigation, in 2015, Occidental agreed to a settlement, marking the first time an American oil company paid compensation to any indigenous communities in the Amazon.

From establishing legal precedent that courts in the future will follow to creating more socially responsible policies and procedures within corporations and international finance institutions, these firsts can have reverberating impacts for years to come. We’re so grateful for all the partners, allies, donors, and supporters who have made these victories possible. Together, we are changing the world and creating a more just future for everyone.

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