When Unocal, a U.S. oil and gas company, partnered with the notorious Burmese military to build a gas pipeline, knowing the military would commit human rights abuses, we filed a landmark lawsuit against Unocal. As predicted, the military pulled villagers from their homes and forced them to do backbreaking work to support the Yadana gas pipeline project, while committing other horrific abuses including rape and murder. Unocal was forced to settle in 2003, marking the first time a human rights lawsuit against a multinational corporation resulted in compensation for the survivors.
The plaintiffs were Burmese villagers who suffered human rights violations at the hands of Burmese army units securing the pipeline route. These abuses included forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture, and murder.
Unocal; Total (French Oil Company); Burmese military.
In addition to EarthRights International (ERI), counsel for the plaintiffs included Paul Hoffman, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Hadsell & Stormer, and Judith Brown Chomsky.
Beginning in the early 1990s, two Western oil companies, Unocal and Total, , entered a partnership with the brutal Burmese military regime to build the Yadana natural gas pipeline. The regime created a highly militarized pipeline corridor in which it violently suppressed dissent, forced local people to build pipeline infrastructure and porter for the military, forced entire villages to relocate, and committed torture, rape, and summary execution.
EarthRights International and the Southeast Asian Information Network (SAIN) released Total Denial, a report that exposed the human rights and environmental problems associated with the Yadana pipeline. Plaintiffs also filed their complaint in Doe v. Unocal, initiating the lawsuit.
In a landmark decision, a U.S. federal district court in Los Angeles agreed to hear Doe v. Unocal, rejecting Unocal’s argument that the case should be dismissed. The court concluded that corporations and their executive officers can be held legally responsible under the Alien Tort Statute for violations of international human rights norms in foreign countries, and that U.S. courts have the authority to adjudicate such claims.
After three years of discovery, the plaintiffs presented evidence demonstrating that, in the court’s words, “Unocal knew that the military had a record of committing human rights abuses; that the Project hired the military to provide security for the Project, a military that forced villagers to work and entire villages to relocate for the benefit of the Project; that the military, while forcing villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence; and that Unocal knew or should have known that the military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit these tortious acts.”
The court also concluded that “the evidence does suggest that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that [Unocal and Total, a co-venturer in the Yadana project] benefited from the practice” and that “The violence perpetrated against Plaintiffs is well documented in the deposition testimony filed under seal with the Court.”
Nonetheless, the court dismissed the case, concluding that Unocal could not be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute unless Unocal actually controlled the military units that committed abuses, and that plaintiffs had not made this showing.
Once the ATS claims were dismissed, the court declined to hear the plaintiffs’ claims under state law, without ruling on whether these claims had merit.
After this decision, the case proceeded on two tracks. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of the international human rights claims under the ATS to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. At the same time, the plaintiff re-filed their state-law claims in California state court, the Superior Court for Los Angeles County. Unocal petitioned the federal court to reassert jurisdiction over those claims, but the court rejected Unocal’s motion.
Unocal’s motion to dismiss the case from state court was rejected. Unocal argued to the state court that the federal court’s dismissal barred plaintiffs’ state case because federal and state law are the same. The court did not accept that argument, noting that state law differs from federal law. Unocal also made a number of arguments based upon the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that struck down Massachusetts’ Burma Sanctions law. In particular, Unocal argued that it would violate the U.S. Constitution for a state court to hear plaintiffs’ claims because doing so would intrude upon U.S. foreign relations, and that plaintiffs’ claims are preempted by the federal Burma sanctions law. The court rejected all of these arguments.
The lawsuit survived Unocal’s motion for summary judgment, the last stage before trial. The Superior Court of California’s decision made the case against Unocal the first in U.S. history in which victims of human rights abuses committed abroad gained the right to a trial against a corporation.
California Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney held that the case against Unocal should go to trial because the plaintiffs had presented evidence that Unocal was responsible for human rights violations. Specifically, Judge Chaney found evidence that would allow a jury to find that Unocal’s joint venture hired the military to provide security and that Unocal is therefore liable for the military’s human rights abuses, and to conclude that Unocal breached California constitutional and statutory law in its operations.
At the same time, the appeal of the federal ATS claims continued.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision, and allowed the Alien Tort Statute claims against Unocal to go forward. The three-judge panel held that the District Court was wrong in determining that the plaintiffs had to show that Unocal controlled the Burmese military’s actions in order to establish Unocal’s liability. The Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs need only demonstrate that Unocal knowingly assisted the military in perpetrating the abuses. Under this standard, the Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to go to trial.
The Ninth Circuit Court decided to rehear the appeal before an eleven-judge en banc panel.
The trial on the case also began in state court. In the first phase of the trial, Judge Chaney concluded that the Unocal subsidiaries involved in the pipeline project were not sham entities.
Judge Chaney ruled that although the Unocal subsidiaries were not sham entities, the plaintiffs were entitled to a trial on their other theories of liability. In so doing, she rejected Unocal’s argument that she should dismiss the case in light of her prior decision, noting that decision “does not preclude [the plaintiffs] from proving defendants controlled specific aspects of the Yadana project to an extent beyond that permissible by a mere owner.” Judge Chaney set a trial date for June of 2005 for a jury trial on the plaintiffs’ claims of murder, rape, and forced labor.
In March, three months before going to trial, Unocal agreed to compensate the plaintiffs in a historic settlement that ended the lawsuit in both state and federal court. Shortly thereafter, Unocal was acquired by Chevron.
The legal standards for when a company can be held liable for human rights abuses committed by a partner military regime on the company’s project.
Foreign crimes come home to the US | Asia Times | December 16, 2004
Unocal Settles Myanmar Suit | NPR | December 14, 2004
Energy giant agrees settlement with Burmese villagers | The Guardian | December 14, 2004
Unocal pays out in Burma abuse case | Financial Times | December 14, 2004
Unocal to Settle Rights Claims | Los Angeles Times | December 14, 2004
Oil company to stand trial for alleged Burma rights abuses | ABC News | August 1, 2003
Burmese sue US oil company | The Guardian | July 27, 2003
Total Denial (report)
Total Denial (film)