MAC: Mines and Communities

The National - 22 November 01

Published by MAC on 2001-11-22

The National - 22 November 01

Government acts to block Rio Tinto lawsuit

The National Government is trying to block a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the United States which alleges genocide and environmental damage on Bougainville by mining giant Rio Tinto.

The Government has warned the United States that its relations with PNG could be "seriously undermined" if it allows the class action to go ahead in the US District Court, documents show.

It has also warned that the current peace process on Bougainville island could be derailed by the action. The documents show that the Government has forced its Ambassador at the United Nations, Peter Donigi, and Attorney-General Francis Damem to withdraw their approval for the lawsuit.

The lawsuit against Rio Tinto was mounted in the US Federal District Court before Judge Margaret Morrow in April by persons acting for Bougainville rebel leader Francis Ona. The lawsuit alleges that Rio Tinto, acting in concert with the PNG Government, was responsible for despoiling the environment on Bougainville, committing 'various atrocities' and 'war crimes' -- including a military blockade that kept medical supplies from the island -- and "killing, bombing, rape and pillage".

The action is being mounted by the legal 'czar' of US civil class actions, Steve Berman, a multi-millionaire from successful suits against
cigarette-maker Philip Morris.

In July, former lawyer Mr Donigi and Attorney-General Mr Damem were asked to advise Judge Morrow and Mr Berman whether the PNG Government would become a party to the case. Documents show Mr Damem advised Mr Berman that it was "purely a private matter" and he condoned "the plaintiffs' choice of (legal) forum ... to bring this case in the United States courts".

Mr Donigi also told Judge Morrow that he did not believe the case would harm PNG's national security interests, or its relations with the US. "I believe the people of Bougainville must have recourse to the courts and not to unlawful means of resolving any disputes," he added.

"It would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the litigation claims before you will not hurt the (Bougainville) peace process, but enhance it."

However, it is understood that Mr Damem and Mr Donigi were then ordered by Chief Secretary Robert Igara to recant their letters. In the case of Mr Donigi, he was reportedly told "you can walk home" (from New York) if he did not do so.

Mr Donigi then wrote to Judge Morrow: "I have been instructed by my government to demand a withdrawal of my letter of July 27, 2001, stating an opinion on the above case before you." He said he wanted the original and any copies of the letter removed from court files.

Mr Igara then wrote to the US Ambassador to PNG, Susan Jacobs, advising her of the withdrawal of Mr Donigi's and Mr Damem's letters. "The case has potentially very serious social, legal, political and security implications for Papua New Guinea," he told Ms Jacobs. "It has the potential to give rise to serious adverse effects on many different aspects of Papua New Guinea's international relations, especially its relations with the United States. The implications for this case proceeding in the US District Court are very grave, with far reaching implications for the wider region. The PNG Government considers this court action as tantamount to seriously undermining and placing under strain the cordial relations and support it enjoys with the United States and therefore calls on the United States Government to seriously consider the gravity of the matter on its foreign relations with PNG."

"The Government of PNG respectfully requests the United States Government to make representations to Her Honour Judge Margaret M Morrow so as to avert the difficulties and adverse effects of this case," Mr Igara said.

When asked this week whether the Government had ordered Mr Donigi to reverse his stance on the court case, Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta replied: "Do you expect us to support it? Mr Donigi must carry out the Government's view." - AAP

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