MAC: Mines and Communities

Bougainville: Court rules in favour

Published by MAC on 2007-04-16

Bougainville: Court rules in favour

by Earth Times

16th April 2007

Today [16 April 2007] the United States Court of Appeals again rejected arguments brought by mining giant Rio Tinto in a massive human rights claim brought by South Pacific islanders claiming Rio conspired with the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to savagely quell civil resistance over an environmentally devastating mining operation, actions that led to the deaths of thousands.

The case, originally filed in 2000 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeks to represent Bougainville island residents who were exposed to toxins resulting from mine operations, lost property due to environmental contamination, as well as those injured or killed during the conflict which began in 1989 and raged until 1999.

Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, foreign nationals can bring suit in the United States against companies that violate international law. Rio Tinto is the parent company of subsidiary U.S. Borax Inc., headquartered in Los Angeles.

The case also alleges that Rio Tinto violated international law, including prohibitions against destruction of the right to life and health, and prohibitions against racial discrimination and war crimes. The same court issued a similar decision in 2006, but reheard the case at the request of Rio Tinto.

According to Steve W. Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, the firm representing the plaintiffs, this decision again affirms the court's belief that the case should be heard in U.S. courts.

"We thought the court's original decision was clear, cogent and thoughtful, and had hoped that it would help us give our clients their day in court, something our clients have been fighting to reach for years," said Berman. "Now that the court has rejected Rio's arguments for a second time in a similarly unambiguous way, we hope this case can move forward."

The court also ruled that war crimes, crimes against humanity and racial discrimination are such universally recognized norms that they can be heard under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

In the most recent ruling, the court again dismissed concerns voiced by the U.S. State Department that the case would hamper ongoing peace negotiations in the region, and could hobble the State Department's ability to conduct foreign policy.

According to Berman, he hopes the ruling will finally give his plaintiffs the ability to seek redress for loss of life and injuries from the war, and to pursue claims that will force Rio Tinto to clean up the island from the massive environmental destruction caused by the mining operations.

"So far, Rio Tinto has exploited every possible tactic to delay this case," Berman noted. "If its past actions are any indication, we expect that its attorneys will file another set of appeals."

The court sided with the plaintiffs in a two-to-one majority, as it did in its 2006 decision.

Environmental Events Leading to the Lawsuit

The Panguna copper mine and the political events that erupted since the mine was established are at the core of the case. Bougainville Island, located northeast of Australia, is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Australian Colonial Administration leased land on the island to Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a mining subsidiary of Rio Tinto. The suit claims that landowners unsuccessfully resisted intrusion onto their land, and many Bougainvilleans were forced to relocate or flee the island. Three principal villages were relocated.

According to the suit, Rio Tinto then destroyed entire villages, razed the rain forest, sluiced off a hillside and established the world's largest open- cut mine, spanning two kilometers wide and half a kilometer deep. The mine excavated 300,000 tons of ore and water every day during its operation between 1972 and 1988.

The Panguna mine, located on the Island of Bougainville just off Papua New Guinea, was once the world's largest copper mine during the 1980s.

The suit alleges that Rio Tinto improperly dumped waste rock and tailings, emitting chemical and air pollutants without regard for the villagers. Those tailings destroyed local fish stock, a major food source for the islanders.

The Bougainville people -- especially children -- began dying more frequently from upper respiratory infections, asthma and tuberculosis, the suit states.

According to the complaint, in 1990, villagers started an uprising which closed the mine, and in response, Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government brought troops in to reopen the mine.

The complaint alleges that Rio Tinto provided transport for these troops and played a role in instituting a military blockade of the island that lasted for almost 10 years, created to coerce the Bougainville people into surrendering so that the mine could be reopened.

The blockade prevented medicine, clothing and other essential items from reaching the people of Bougainville, closing hospitals and other vital services.

According to the Red Cross, the blockade killed more than 2,000 children in its first two years of operation. By the time the war ended in 1999, 10 percent of the population of Bougainville, approximately 15,000 civilians, were killed.



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