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Oily Diplomacy: How State Department is protecting Exxon, Unocal and Rio Tinto from peoples' claims

Published by MAC on 2002-08-18

Oily Diplomacy: How State Department is protecting Exxon, Unocal and Rio Tinto from peoples' claims

Source: New York Times, August 18 2002

The Bush administration, promiscuously invoking the war against terrorism, is using its influence inappropriately to assist an American oil company that has been sued for misconduct overseas. The intervention reinforces the impression that the administration is too cozy with the oil industry.

The case involves Exxon Mobil and its activities in the Indonesian province of Aceh. The Bush administration weighed in to discourage a lawsuit against the company filed on behalf of 11 Acehnese by the International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington group. The suit alleges that the company knew about and did nothing to stop murder, torture and other crimes by security forces guarding its gas fields in Indonesia. Exxon Mobil says Indonesia is responsible for security at the facilities. At Exxon Mobil's request, the judge in the case asked the State Department whether the case could adversely affect American interests. The administration implausibly said the case could endanger Indonesia's cooperation in fighting terrorism.

Coming the same week that Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Indonesia to promise a partial resumption of military aid -- which had been cut off because of the military's brutality -- the administration's statement was an invitation to more abuse, a sign that human rights could become a needless casualty of the antiterror campaign.

The suit concerns the behavior of Indonesia's military in Aceh, site of a longstanding guerrilla war that continues in part because of local anger over the military's brutal rampages. The Bush administration argues that the lawsuit would alienate Indonesia - even though the State Department has long been a sharp public critic of the military's abuses in Aceh. It also argues, improbably, that the suit could injure Indonesia economically.

The administration's opinion would be more credible if it had not given a similar reply to a judge considering a suit against the mining company Rio Tinto for alleged environmental and human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea, not a nation normally considered a front-line American ally. In March, a federal judge in California dismissed the lawsuit, citing a State Department opinion that the case could interfere with the ongoing peace process and so adversely affect American foreign policy.

In the wake of the Exxon Mobil opinion, another oil company, Unocal, has won a five-month postponement of its trial involving alleged misconduct in Myanmar. The delay will allow the judge to consult the State Department. The Clinton administration had already told a judge in the case that the lawsuit would not adversely affect American foreign-policy interests -- a logical view, given that Washington already enforces an economic embargo against Myanmar. Unocal clearly has reason to believe that the Bush administration may see things differently.

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