Historic Advance for Universal Human Rights: Unocal to Compensate Burmese Villagers

The US oil company Unocal has agreed to compensate Burmese villagers who sued the firm for complicity in forced labor, rape and murder. The abuses were committed in the mid-1990’s by soldiers providing security for Unocal’s natural gas pipeline in southern Burma.

In addition to compensating the villagers, most of whom are destitute and living in hiding from the Burmese regime, the settlement funds will also enable the plaintiffs 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 suffered hardships in the region.

The settlement ends a series of cases filed by two groups of plaintiffs in both federal and California state court. These landmark cases, Doe v. Unocal and Roe v. Unocal, are now closed.

The Roe and Doe actions were litigated together by a team of lawyers that included Dan Stormer, Anne Richardson and Cornelia Dai of Hadsell & Stormer, Terry Collingsworth and Natacha Thys of the International Labor Rights Fund, Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris and Hoffman, Katie Redford, Tyler Giannini and Richard Herz of EarthRights International, The Law Offices of Judith Chomsky and Jennifer Green of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ka Hsaw Wa of EarthRights International served as a liason and interpretor for eleven of the plaintiffs.

The Legal Team has jointly issued the following statement:

The fifteen individuals who brought these cases suffered horribly at the hands of the Burmese military, with the complicity of Unocal. They risked their lives for the last eight years seeking justice through these suits. These villagers, ethnic minorities from a remote region, living under a brutal dictatorship, took on a major US multinational oil company in court – and won. We are thrilled for our clients and gratified that the settlement will provide funds benefitting other victims of the Yadana pipeline.

More generally, this is a historic victory for human rights and for the corporate accountability movement. Corporations can no longer fool themselves into thinking they can get away with human rights violations. This case will reverberate in corporate boardrooms around the world and will have a deterrent effect on the worst forms of corporate behavior.

On behalf of the plaintiffs, we thank the many people and organizations working tirelessly to promote democracy in Burma. Our colleagues in the “Free Burma” movement have been instrumental  in calling public attention to Unocal’s complicity in the abuses suffered by so many in the pipeline region. We look forward to the day that freedom and democracy will come to Burma; a time when its citizens will live with hope rather than fear, under law rather than tyranny, and when the people of Burma will never again suffer egregious military abuses, whether in support of political repression or the corporate greed of companies like Unocal.

John Doe IX, a plaintiff who had done back-breaking forced labor in the mid 1990’s, said,  “I don’t care about the money. Most of all I wanted the world to know what Unocal did. Now you know.”

Louisa Benson, a California resident who served as a plaintiff representing the people of California, added “I am gratified for two reasons. First, there is now awareness that corporations need to be accountable for their partners’ actions as well as their own. Second, many people have lost their lives on this project, but those that still remain can now begin to get their lives back together.”

The settlement was one of Unocal’s last major actions as an independent oil company. Pending approval by its shareholders and US authorities, Unocal will be acquired by ChevronTexaco. Coincidentally, some of the same groups that litigated Doe v. Unocal, including ERI, are also co-counsel in Bowoto v. ChevronTexaco, a lawsuit alleging complicity in human rights violations by the oil giant in Nigeria. The lawsuit against ChevronTexaco has many parallels to the Doe v. Unocal case.

Common Questions and Answers for ERI

Why do you consider this settlement a victory?

It is an historic victory for human rights because the plaintiffs, who are by any measure among the least powerful people in the world, have sued a large American oil company for human rights abuses including forced labor, rape and murder – and won. Moreover, they did so despite the opposition of the Bush Administration. In overcoming incredible obstacles and dangers from the military dictatorship that runs Burma, these villagers have showed the world how to hold a mighty transnational company accountable. This case will reverberate in corporate boardrooms around the world, and will have a deterrent effect on irresponsible corporate behavior everywhere.

What are the terms of the settlement?

The specific terms of the settlement are confidential. However, we can say that Unocal has agreed to compensate the 14 surviving plaintiffs. The settlement monies will enable the plaintiffs 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 suffered hardships in the region.Both the California State case and the Federal case are terminated by the settlement.

How much is the settlement?

ERI and the other lawyers in the case have agreed not to disclose the amount of the compensation.

Why did you settle? Didn’t you want the precedent of a trial?

The settlement was incredibly good for our clients. The terms were simply too good to refuse. We are very, very happy with the agreement. At the same time, we are confident we had the facts and evidence to win at trial.

But didn’t you want Unocal executives to go on trial?

An ATCA case like this one is a civil suit. There was never an option of criminal charges or penalties for the Unocal executives, even though they decided to form a joint venture with the one of the most brutal regimes in the world.

We sympathize with the desire of many of our allies to see Unocal executives in court, trying to defend themselves before a California jury.  The plaintiffs have said that what they wanted from this case was for the truth about Unocal to come out; for the world to understand that Unocal knew about the forced labor and torture routinely used by soldiers on their behalf, and that Unocal chose to go ahead and benefit from it.  In the course of this lawsuit, we believe this truth has come out. Four federal judges, (a district court judge and three appeals court judges) found that we collected evidence that Unocal knew of and benefitted from these horrific abuses. From now on, no corporation will be able to pretend that there are no consequences for this kind of complicity. Unocal’s agreement to compensate our clients is an amazing victory for them against overwhelming odds, and an historic advance for universal human rights. Even without a trial, these peasants from Burma have broken new legal ground in the United States, and showed the world how to begin to hold giant transnational corporations accountable.

Why do you think Unocal settled?

We don’t know the thought process of Unocal executives. We can note certain facts, however. In September of 2004, the judge in the state case ordered Unocal to stand trial in June of 2005, rejecting Unocal’s last effort to have the case dismissed. With respect to the federal cases, the U.S. Supreme Court had, in another case, recently held that the Alien Tort Claims Act, (one law under which we sued Unocal), can be used to bring claims for egregious human rights violations. Moreover, a federal court of appeals was about to hear argument in this case, and a federal trial court had recently refused to dismiss a new case filed by the plaintiffs against the Unocal subsidiaries involved in the project. Unocal also faced a steady drumbeat of press attention and criticism over abuses on the Yadana project. In short, at the time of the settlement, Unocal was losing the case in court and in the court of public opinion.

Some analysts also had noted that the case might be a “poison pill” preventing a takeover of Unocal. The acquisition of the company by Chevron-Texaco, announced on April 4th, lends credence to that theory.

What about the legal precedents in the Unocal case?

The biggest legal precedent the Unocal case set remains the 1997 decision by Judge Paez accepting the idea that a corporation, like an individual, can be held liable in an ATCA case for complicity in egregious human rights abuses. Many courts have already followed that decision in cases against other multinational corporations.

In 2002, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Unocal could be held liable. Two judges looked to international law and one to domestic law standards. Soon afterwards, the Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case en banc (before 11 judges) to decide which standards apply. The en banc hearing was scheduled for December 13, 2004 but was cancelled because of the settlement.

As lawyers, probably our biggest regret in this process is that the en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit ultimately did not rule on the standard of complicity for liability in the case. We are sure twe would have received a favorable ruling. That determination will now have to made in future cases. Our work in Unocal  is critical to this effort. Recently, a federal court in New York held that corporations that aid and abet international law violations can be held liable under the ATCA. In so doing, the court explicitly adopted as its own the arguments ERI and our Unocal co-counsel the Center for Constitutional Rights presented in an amicus brief. These were the same arguments we originally developed in Unocal.

What lessons have you at ERI learned from this case?

The Unocal case proves that legal action can, with the right facts, hard work, persistence and a little luck, bring at least a modicum of justice to victims of human rights abuses anywhere in the world.

At the same time, we learned that no one, neither plaintiffs nor lawyers, should bring a case like this without a high level of commitment. In these eight years we have had intense security concerns, moments of doubt, frightening legal expenses, and a series of emotional ups and downs that obviously were much more intense for the plaintiffs. It involved dozens of people working unimaginable hours, over a period of eight years. Of course it was worth it, but it was not easy.

For the Free Burma movement, the case has been important symbolically, representing the solidarity of the world community with the movement. It showed that large corporations cannot simply support the military regime with impunity.

In the U.S., the implications of the Unocal case are significant. Although Unocal denies any liability orwrongdoing, many commentators have noted that their denials are not tenable. We believe that Unocal in particular and U.S. corporations in general will tend to be a lot more vigilant about aiding and abetting human rights abuses overseas. And, we hope, such vigilance will spill over into more careful environmental and social policies in general.

At the same time, we learned that success provokes backlash, and that our adversaries are powerful. It has been very difficult to use ATCA to bring corporate cases.Yet even the prospect of bringing a multinational corporation to trial has provoked corporate America into lobbying to eliminate the law. We now have to defend ATCA cases not only in the courts but in Congress and in the court of public opinion.