Over the past ten years, the Burmese military has committed widespread and egregious human rights abuses for the benefit of western oil companies, including Premier Oil and TotalFinaElf. The companies hired the military to provide security and build infrastructure for their gas pipeline projects even though they knew the military would commit abuses on their behalf. Despite these abuses, Premier and Total remain in partnership with the Burmese government. Burmese soldiers continue to provide security for their pipelines, and continue to commit human rights abuses for their benefit.
We have ample evidence that Total and Premier have long known of the dangers of using the Burmese military to provide security, yet went ahead with their projects nonetheless. A U.S. federal judge recently found that there was evidence to show that partners in Total’s pipeline knew of the military’s poor human rights record, hired the military to provide security, and knew or should have known that the military would commit human rights abuses in the course of providing security. Additionally, an impact assessment done for Premier’s pipeline consortium, as well as declassified cables from the U.S. embassy in Rangoon, demonstrate the companies’ knowledge of the likelihood of human rights abuses being committed by the soldiers providing security.
The military has provided at least three key services to the companies. First, the military secured the region before work on the pipelines began. As part of this effort, the military forcibly relocated several villages and committed countless human rights abuses. Second, as onshore work was commencing, the military directed the construction of service roads and helipads, as well as their own camps and barracks, through the use of forced labor.
Finally, the military provides ongoing security for the pipelines. According to deserters that we have interviewed, at least two infantry battalions #273 and #282were created specifically for pipeline security, in addition to several other battalions that patrol throughout the region. The fact that these battalions provide security for the pipeline is well known; for example, one villager interviewed this summer described #273 and #282 as the battalions hired by Total, and another described both of them as providing security for the foreigners.
In the past year, the Burmese government has come under increasing pressure from the international community, especially the International Labour Organization, to end the pervasive practice of forced labor. Unfortunately, recent interviews conducted by EarthRights International confirms that the military units who provide security for the pipelines are still procuring forced labor. The worst form of this is forced portering, where the soldiers force villagers to join them on patrols, carrying heavy loads of supplies and ammunition, often beating them or even leaving them to die.
According to a villager from the pipeline region who we interviewed in July, a delegation from the Burmese government in Rangoon came to his village earlier this year to explain to them that there would be no more forced labor. After this delegation left, the village was visited by the captain of the local military unit. The soldiers warned them that they would be punished if they told anyone that they still had to do forced labor and portering.
We have multiple reports from villagers in the pipeline region that forced labor is in fact continuing; for example, three individuals from the same village told us that battalion #273, one of the battalions created to guard the pipeline, has forced civilians to work for them within the past few months. One man from another village near the pipeline told us earlier this year that, within the previous year, he had been forced to porter ten times, mostly for battalions #273 and #282. He was forced to porter even after signs were posted in his village indicating that no one would be required to porter anymore. While portering, he was beaten by soldiers and witnessed another porter who had died. Another villager from the region told us that, in May of this year, soldiers from battalion #282 arrested several villagers and forced them to porter. They were then forced to help clear the local road for several miles.
In addition to battalions #273 and #282, other battalions also patrol to provide security for the gas pipelines. One man from a village near the pipelines told us that battalion #410, which we had previously confirmed as providing pipeline security, regularly conscripts porters to patrol along the pipeline.
In addition to interviews, we also have evidence of communications between military units indicating that forced labor is continuing. Soldiers have told each other to be wise when using forced labor, and have been instructed not to leave any written documentation of forced labor orders; if they do give written orders to the village headmen, they are instructed to get the orders back from them.
Other abuses by the military also continue, though some have changed in subtle ways. For example, villagers were formerly required to pay a monthly portering fee directly to the local military commanders. The villagers still have to pay the armyin fact, one woman from a village near the pipelines told us of three people being beaten by the soldiers from battalion #282 because they refused to give money to the soldiersbut the labels for the fees have now changed. Instead of portering fees, villagers are required to contribute to funds such as the Frontline Soldiers’ Fund, or the Police and Militia Security Fund.
Another ongoing problem for villagers in the pipeline region is that the military does not allow them to come and go freely. In order to tend their farms in outlying areas, they must obtain passes from the military. These passes are not always given out, putting the villagers’ livelihood at risk. We have also heard multiple reports of soldiers forcing villagers to give them food, as well as confiscating rice paddies for their own use.
The activities of Premier Oil and TotalFinaElf in Burma are in flagrant violation of the companies’ own internal standards, and in violation of international law. For example, both Total’s and Premier’s human rights policies indicates that the companies respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Premier’s indicates that it will withdraw from relationships with business partners who do not make progress toward implementing human rights standards. Overwhelming evidence indicates that the Burmese military, the business partner of the companies as well as their agent for pipeline security, has committed massive human rights abuses. Accordingly, in keeping with its own policy, Premier should terminate its partnership with the military and withdraw from its project.
Not only do Premier and Total fail to meet their own stated standards of behavior, they fail to meet basic standards of corporate accountability. True corporate responsibility would require several elements. Most importantly, the victims of human rights abuses must have some form of redress. International law, including the European Convention on Human Rights and other major human rights treaties, requires that victims of human rights abuses be provided with a remedy. Redress itself is therefore a human right.
Redress has at least two essential elements: a finding of responsibility and reparations for the harm caused. The companies steadfastly refuse to accept responsibility for the human rights abuses associated with their pipeline projects, denying even the most basic step toward redress. Full redress, for those living in Burma, is impossible, for the courts that do exist are controlled by the military. Even to speak out, let alone seek a remedy, would invite further punishment.
Some of the victims of human rights abuses connected to the pipelines have in fact sought a remedy through the courts, but they have had to take advantage of the legal system of the United States in order to do so. These victims sued Total and Unocal, Total’s junior partner in its consortium. Although Total was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons, which are the same reasons that Premier has not been sued in the United States, the case against Unocal is proceeding. We expect it to reach trial next year. Unfortunately, most of the victims cannot take advantage of the U.S. court system, and no effective remedy is possible within Burma. Because they cannot ensure that the right to a remedy will be respected, the companies should withdraw from their projects in Burma. If they do want to help the victims gain redress, the first step would be to accept responsibility.
In addition to the right to a remedy, other fundamental human rights continue to be violated in Burma. There must be a real commitment on the part of the companies to end practices that violate their stated policies, and violate fundamental human rights. If the companies cannot ensure that the military units providing security for the pipelines will not commit human rights abuses, then they must withdraw from these projects. Without providing redress to the victims of their actions, and without a commitment to halt the conduct that causes ongoing violations of human rights, Premier and Total cannot claim that they are good corporate citizens, regardless of what their new policies and codes of conduct may say.