Palaces For The People
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
Time is GMT + 8 hours
Posted: 10 December 2003 0240 hrs
Unocal becomes first US firm to stand trial in US over rights abuses
LOS ANGELES : Oil giant Unocal was set to become the first US firm to stand trial in the United States for alleged human rights abuses abroad over the construction of a gas pipeline in Myanmar.
A trial of the California-based oil titan was poised to begin in Los Angeles early Tuesday in a case brought by Myanmar villagers who accuse Unocal of complicity in human rights abuses by the Southeast Asian country's brutal military junta, including forced labour, rape and torture.
The trial stems from two lawsuits filed by up to 15 unidentified villagers from the nation formerly known as Burma over the construction of the 62-kilometer (39-mile) Yadana natural gas pipeline.
The villagers claim in their long-running lawsuit that Unocal turned a blind eye as junta troops murdered, raped and enslaved villagers and forced them to work on the 1.2-billion-dollar pipeline in the early- to mid-1990s.
"Burmese soldiers enforced a system of slave labour and committed horrible acts of violence on Unocal's behalf," said Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which is representing some of the villagers.
Unocal, which did not operate the field that was owned by the Myanmar government, strongly denies any involvement in abuses.
At issue in the first part of the complex trial is whether Unocal can be held liable for the conduct of its subsidiaries which invested in the pipeline.
Daniel Petrocelli, Unocal's lead lawyer, said California's "alter-ego doctrine" bars plaintiffs from trying to tap a parent corporation if a subsidiary has valuable assets of its own.
Unocal executives have acknowledged that troops forced villagers to carry ammunition and supplies for the military and perform other labour in the vicinity, but they deny any of the labour occurred for the pipeline project.
But lawyers for the villagers maintain that Unocal is using its subsidiaries as corporate shells to avoid responsibility in the case.
In July, Judge Victoria Chaney, who is presiding over the case, rejected arguments by the energy firm that the case should be tried at least in part under the laws of Myanmar or Bermuda, where its subsidies were based, instead of under US law.
If Unocal manages to convince the court in the first phase of the trial, expected to last about 20 days, that its subsidiaries, rather than the parent company, should be targeted by any suits, it could move to have the abuse charges thrown out in the second phase of the trial.