In a major victory for international human rights, Unocal, the California oil company, agreed today to settle claims against it by villagers from Burma where a Unocal natural gas project is located. The exact terms of the settlement have not yet been disclosed. The agreement was apparently reached on the eve of a long-scheduled argument in front of a federal appellate court.
Unocal joined with the French oil company Total to pump natural gas off the coast of Burma and pipe it across Burma to a power plant in Thailand. The project is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Unocal and its shareholders. But to construct the project Unocal worked hand in glove with the military dictatorship that controls Burma. The military provided “security” on the project which according to testimony presented by the Burmese litigants included forced labor and other human rights abuses by the military with the knowledge of Unocal.
Because Unocal benefitted by the actions of the military they were potentially liable under the Alien Tort Claims Act which allows non-U.S. citizens to sue in U.S. courts for violations of the law of nations. The Act has been used by a wide variety of litigants, most successfully against perpetrators of acts like torture under military dictatorships. Its use against multinational accomplices is relatively new. The victory against Unocal will represent a major step forward in the effort to establish an enforceable global code of responsible behavior by multinational corporations.
Here is the link to a story announcing the settlement: