US Firms Liable for International Rights Abuses

September 20, 2002 ( - Multinational US companies can be taken to task in American courts for helping those committing human rights violations abroad, a federal appeals court ruled.

The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision came in case involving Unocal Corp. where the company stood accused of ignoring human rights abuses being committed on Burmese villagers by Myanmar government soldiers, according to a Los Angeles Times news story. The Myanmar soldiers allegedly forced the villagers to work on a $1.2-billion natural gas pipeline, according to the Times.

After 13 Burmese villages filed a federal lawsuit, a federal judge found that the evidence suggests “that Unocal knew that forced labor was being utilized and that the joint venturers benefited from the practice.”

But he still threw out the federal case because the company’s conduct did not rise to the level of “active participation.” Plaintiff lawyers appealed the dismissal, which led to the latest 9th Circuit ruling.

 Lawyers for the Burmese villagers also filed a new lawsuit in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, making many of the same charges under state law. That case is set for trial in February.

Although the appeals panel sent the case back to the lower federal court for trial, the villagers’ lawyers said they would ask Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney to apply the new liability standard as set out by the 9th Circuit in the state trial.

Rights Support

According to the Times, the Unocal 9th Circuit was being seen as a victory for human rights groups going after large companies in other nations for their alleged complicity for repressive regimes and human rights abusers.

At least 10 similar lawsuits are pending around the country against corporations, including ChevronTexaco Corp. and Coca-Cola Co., and human rights lawyers have several other cases involving multinational companies waiting in the wings, the Times story said.

Officials at Unocal were considering an appeal and were confident the company would prevail.

“What the case is about is whether a private American company can be held responsible for the actions of a foreign military regime when the company itself didn’t do any of the offending conduct,” said Daniel Petrocelli, a lawyer Unocal brought into the case about a month ago.

A French company ran the pipeline project and Unocal’s involvement was as an investor, he said.  Lawyers for the Burmese villagers pressing their grievances from a refugee camp in Thailand said the decision was a major victory for them and an example for courts in similar lawsuits.

The legal battle began six years ago when Burmese villagers filed a suit in US federal court demanding that Unocal pay tens of millions of dollars in damages for alleged abuses committed by soldiers along the Yadana pipeline.