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Human rights groups lauded the announcement by lawyers that an agreement in principle has been reached to settle human rights lawsuits against oil giant Unocal Corp. over a 1990s pipeline project in Southeast Asia. Unocal Corp. will settle the lawsuits filed in state and federal courts by paying villagers and funding improvements to living conditions along the project route, lawyers on both sides said Monday. The settlement will compensate 14 anonymous villagers who first sued Unocal in 1996, claiming it should be held liable for enforced labor, murder and rape allegedly carried out by the Myanmar military during construction of the $1.2 billion Yadana pipeline in the country, also known as Burma. “We are completely delighted and there is great satisfaction that the matter has been resolved in this way,” said Terry Collingsworth, general counsel for the Washington D.C.-based International Labor Rights Fund, one of the groups representing plaintiffs. Officials at EarthRights International, another human rights group representing the plaintiffs, said they were “ecstatic” with the development. The lawsuits have been the most visible effort by human rights activists trying to hold multinational corporations responsible in U.S. courts for alleged abuses abroad. As part of the pending settlement, El Segundo, Calif.-based Unocal will provide funds to improve living conditions, health care and education in the pipeline region. Unocal, which has denied that any human rights abuses occurred, also will enhance its educational programs to reaffirm its commitment to human rights, the statement said. Further details of the settlement, which is still being negotiated, were kept confidential. The statement was released on behalf of Unocal’s legal team and plaintiffs’ attorneys, which also included the Center for Constitutional Rights. The federal case relied on the obscure 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act that was originally enacted to prosecute pirates. The pending Unocal settlement proves the statute can be used to take corporations to U.S. courts in cases involving allegations of “serious human rights abuses or complicity in serious human rights abuses,” said David Weissbrodt, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and expert on international human rights law. The plaintiffs’ case was bolstered by a separate U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that allowed lawsuits under the act if there are alleged violations of international law, said Connie de la Vega, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “The fact that there was a ruling that these causes of action are legitimate is what encouraged the settlement,” de la Vega said. The full panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had been scheduled to hear arguments on the case Monday in Pasadena, but the hearing was canceled at the request of both parties. The federal court set a Feb. 1, 2005, deadline for both sides to file a joint status report on whether a settlement had been finalized. The settlement would resolve claims against Unocal that were filed in federal and state courts. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who last year demanded Unocal prove it had implemented international standards to protect workers, urged the energy company to release details on the settlement as soon as possible. “Because the allegations of human rights violations — which include murder, rape, and slave labor — are so severe, nothing short of full transparency and a full commitment to human rights by Unocal will suffice,” Angelides said in a statement. Angelides sits on the boards of the nation’s largest and third-largest public pension funds that together hold more than 2.1 million shares of Unocal stock. In the state case, Superior Court Judge Victoria Gerrard Chaney earlier this year ordered a June 2005 jury trial on the human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Myanmar military. Chaney previously ruled that Unocal subsidiaries that built the pipeline should have been sued instead of the parent company under a legal doctrine known as “alter ego.” She later ruled, however, that Unocal could be held liable under other corporate liability theories. The military junta ruling Myanmar has been criticized by Western countries for its poor human rights record, including the detention of pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Diane Butler, an immigration lawyer in Seattle, said the case should serve as a warning to corporations doing business overseas. “If there’s one thing to take away here, it’s that corporations need to be mindful that they must be accountable in their overseas operations because there are human rights groups that are watching them. The world is watching essentially,” Butler said. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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