ExxonMobil, Shell, abuse and accountability

Blood and Oil: Two major cases at U.S. Supreme Court

Mother Jones magazine has published, Did ExxonMobil Pay Torturers?, by Ian T. Shearn and Laird Townsend. The article details ExxonMobil’s possible involvement in human rights abuses in Indonesia and the victims’ decade-long struggle for justice.

“In June 2001,” the authors write, “John Doe III and 10 other civilian neighbors of ExxonMobil’s Arun natural gas facility filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil in federal district court in Washington, DC. In John Doe v. ExxonMobil, the villagers charge the company with complicity in torture, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by Indonesian soldiers it hired to provide security.”

In 2008, the authors continue, “federal district court judge Louis Oberdorfer ordered Exxon to face trial. “A reasonable finder of fact,” the judge wrote, citing internal correspondence from Exxon and its Indonesian subsidiary, EMOI, “could conclude that the paid security forces committed the alleged torts and that EMOI and Exxon Mobil are liable.” Exxon appealed, but a federal circuit court panel upheld that part of the ruling in July 2011.

“The fate of the ExxonMobil case now rests in the hands of the US Supreme Court. On October 1, the court heard arguments in a similar, better-known case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell)—and it’s that case that may determine whether the Acehnese villagers ever get their day in federal court.

“Like John Doe v. ExxonMobil, the Kiobel case relies on an 18th-century statute called the Alien Tort Claims Act. The Nigerian plaintiffs say it gives citizens outside the United States the right to sue any corporation with a US presence for aiding and abetting human rights abuses—such as the Nigerian government’s alleged extrajudicial killings of Ogoni protester Ken Saro-Wiwa and Barinem Kiobel.

“Like ExxonMobil, Shell says the Alien Tort Statute does not apply to cases like this: that only individuals—and not corporations—can be held liable for human rights violations on foreign soil.

“Expected as early as December, the court’s ruling will almost certainly set a major precedent—either allowing people around the world to continue suing companies in US federal court for abuses like slave labor, extrajudicial killings, and torture, or shutting them out for good. More than a dozen Alien Tort cases involving hundreds of plaintiffs are riding on the decision. They target corporations from Chevron to Chiquita.”

Read the entire article here: Did ExxonMobil Pay Torturers?

John Doe v. ExxonMobil and Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum are two extremely important cases that are getting far too little media attention. The arguments for the Kiobel case were heard on October 1st, the court’s opening day and media coverage of the day focused mainly on gay marriage and affirmative action cases that may be heard later this term. It’s hardly surprising that domestic hot-button issues generated the most copy, but it’s unfortunate that the Kiobel hearing was generally relegated to a line or two at the end of the court reporting.

David G. Savage, reporting on the Kiobel hearing for the Los Angeles Times, gives the case some much-needed attention. He writes,”The case heard Monday is seen as a key test of international human rights law…

“Paul Hoffman, a Los Angeles lawyer, asked the justices to envision the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi-era chemical company that manufactured poison gas to be used in the death camps. For example, a foreign company that sells “poison gas” to the Syrian regime. If the regime used it to kill and injure civilians, shouldn’t the survivors have a right to sue the maker of the poison gas in a U.S. court?

“Hoffman said such claims should be decided here. An 18th century U.S. law said the courts would be open to hear claims for “a violation of the law of nations.” In the past 30 years, this old statute has been used to bring international claims against perpetrators from Paraguay, the Philippines, Mexico and Nigeria, among others.

“But that trend in favor of “universal justice,” as Hoffman put it, is in danger of being reversed in the high court. Corporations worldwide have been fighting these claims, which they say can be ruinously expensive. They also argue corporations are unfairly sued for allegedly “aiding and abetting” tyrannical regimes in Third World countries”

You can read more about Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) on the Too Big to Punish? website.

The Obama administration argued that the Kiobel case did not belong in U.S. courts. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. told the justices the case had no connection to the United States and should be heard elsewhere — in the Netherlands, for example. Perhaps, but a ruling against Kiobel could also impact those who want to sue U.S. companies for human rights violations that occur outside the U.S. Furthermore, in our totally globalized world, can we really say that Shell has nothing to do with the United States? The company is traded on the NYSE, has U.S. investors and U.S. employees.

As human rights lawyer Terry Collingsworth, who first filed the John Doe v. ExxonMobil case, points out to Shearn and Townsend,”The global economy is extremely relevant to an American worker and citizen. Our quality of life is going to be dictated by what corporations can get away with in the rest of the world.”

Shearn and Townsend also raise the issue of global standards. These cases matter. They matter for Indonesians, for Nigerians and, ultimately, for workers around the world:  “Rather than opposing the Alien Tort Statute, says Peter Weiss, a civil rights lawyer who pioneered the modern use of the statute in the 1970s, corporations should welcome it. ‘[The law] is being used to make their competitors in foreign countries hue to a universal standard of human rights,’ he says. ‘ATS has served as an important instrument in enforcing human rights.'”

 

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