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The Ford case is not the only recent loss for plaintiffs seeking a judgment against defendants who allegedly supported, tolerated, or benefitted from human rights abuses by foreign government officials. In a ruling that bodes well for U.S. corporations operating abroad — but is a blow to human rights plaintiffs and their lawyers — a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles in August granted Unocal Corporation summary judgment in two related cases brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Fifteen Burmese villagers who claimed the government forced them to work on a pipeline project for the oil company sued Unocal in October 1996. As the first such case to reach summary judgment, the ruling last summer (and the outcome of its appeal) will be critical not only to similar pending cases, but also to whether corporations should expect more of these multimillion-dollar lawsuits for violations of international law. In Doe v. Unocal, plaintiffs claim that thousands of villagers were relocated at gunpoint and forced to work as slave laborers on projects related to Unocal’s natural gas pipeline. This was all to further a joint venture between Unocal, Total S.A. (a French oil company), and the Burmese government to extract natural gas from oil fields off the coast of Burma and transport it to the Thai border. The Myanmar government had promised to provide security for the project. The villagers claim that in doing so, government soldiers killed, raped, beat, and seized property from the Burmese laborers. In his decision, Judge Ronald S.W. Lew in the Central District of California found substantial evidence that Unocal knew that the soldiers were coercing and abusing the workers and profited from their actions. But he concluded the company was not responsible because there was no evidence it “participated in or influenced” the military’s conduct, “conspired” with the government to violate the law, or controlled the military’s actions. The Unocal case raises a key question, explains Paul Hoffman, partner in Santa Monica’s Bostwick & Hoffman and a lawyer for the villagers: “What are the circumstances under which a corporation can be held liable for human rights violations committed by a repressive regime for the corporation’s benefit?” “It’s not a case where Unocal just invested in a country that’s committing human rights violations,” says Hoffman. “Unocal made a specific joint venture agreement with a repressive regime, and relied on the military of that repressive regime, knowing the government engaged in widespread human rights violations. If you can’t win this case, you can’t win any other cases in this area.” Indeed, the facts, as found by the judge, frame the issue starkly. Plaintiffs and defense lawyers are now fighting over the law. “Judge Lew sided with us on virtually all of the factual issues in the case,” says Hoffman, who has represented plaintiffs in several successful ATCA cases, including one against the estate of Ferdinand Marcos. “We think he has just adopted a rule of law that’s clearly wrong.” Edwin Woodsome, Jr., a partner at the Los Angeles office of Washington, D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White, which represents Unocal, disagrees. “The judge found Unocal could not be held liable as a state actor,” he says. “Unocal could not be held responsible for what the military did.” The parallels between Unocal and the Salvadoran generals’ case are clear. In both, victims of human rights abuses are suing the individuals or entity once removed from the actual perpetrators — those they believe instructed or sanctioned and ultimately reaped the benefit of the unlawful acts. But Woodsome insists that the case against Unocal is “a leap” from the command responsibility situation, because his client is a private company, not a government official or agency. Indeed, that — and the lack of any evidence showing actual commission of alleged abuses by Unocal — was the determining principle that led to the company’s victory. But plaintiffs hope that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will reverse the ruling and hold that Unocal acted in concert with the government, thereby making it liable. The appeal brief is due in January. Meanwhile, similar cases remain pending against other oil companies. In New York, Nigerian emigrees are charging that Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, the parent company of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, Ltd., is responsible for imprisonment, torture, and murder committed by the Nigerian police and military to quell opposition to Shell’s oil exploration activities. Another set of plaintiffs is suing Chevron Corporation in Northern California, also for human rights abuses committed in Nigeria. Both cases have survived motions to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds.

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