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Unocal Can Be Held Liable For Human Rights Crimes in Burma, Says Appeals Court

Published by MAC on 2002-09-19

Unocal Can Be Held Liable For Human Rights Crimes in Burma, Says Appeals Court

Contact: Richard Herz (202) 466-5188 ext.104 Paul Hoffman (310) 396-0731 Dan Stormer (626) 585-9600

Washington, D.C., Sept 18, 2002

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today reversed an earlier Federal District Court decision and will allow a groundbreaking human rights lawsuit against Unocal to go forward. In the Doe v. Unocal case, 11 Burmese villagers allege that Unocal, a California based oil company, can be held liable for human rights abuses associated with its Yadana gas pipeline project in Burma. The abuses include rape, forced labor, and murder.

"This is a landmark decision," said Richard L. Herz, an attorney with the non-profit group EarthRights International, co-counsel in the lawsuit. "In recognizing that corporations that aid and abet egregious human rights abuses can be held accountable, the Ninth Circuit has affirmed that US corporations cannot violate international human rights with impunity."

A September 2000 decision in Federal District Court established that Unocal "knew or should have known that the Burmese military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit" these abuses for the benefit of Unocal's project, but nevertheless found Unocal could not be held liable because it did not control the Burmese military's actions. Today's Ninth Circuit decision, written by Judge Harry Pregerson, reversed that ruling.

The Court held that plaintiffs need only demonstrate that Unocal knowingly assisted the military in the perpetration of the abuses, and that plaintiffs had presented evidence that Unocal had done so. It also found that forced labor such as that employed by the Burmese military on behalf of the Unocal pipeline is the "modern equivalent of slavery." The decision follows a June 2002 decision in related state lawsuit, in which California Superior Judge Victoria Chaney held that plaintiffs' claims may proceed to trial.

Paul Hoffman, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, commented today, "This decision is important not only because it allows a US company to be held liable for abuses committed overseas, but also because it tells other multinational corporations that go into business with repressive dictatorships that they are responsible if they assist their partners' abuses." Co-counsel Anne Richardson concurred, stating "This ruling puts the plaintiffs one step closer to having their day in court. We are confident that a jury reviewing the facts of this case will be horrified. We expect a huge verdict on their behalf."

Plaintiffs are represented by Paul Hoffman, Judith Brown Chomsky and Jennie Green of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Dan Stormer and Anne Richardson of Hadsell & Stormer, and Katharine Redford, Tyler Giannini and Richard Herz of EarthRights International.

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