When big business and human rights collide
How is it possible that foreign companies can come into Burma, hire a rogue army, make billions of dollars and have no responsibility for what their business partners do?
A case before the U.S. Supreme Court may deny victims abroad recourse against corporate-sanctioned abuse.
LA TIMES OP ED February 26, 2012
Among the thousands of interviews I’ve conducted as a human rights investigator over the last 24 years, one of the most difficult was in 1996, outside a refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border. I was no stranger to suffering in my country. I had fled from Burma (also known as Myanmar) just a few years before, escaping the brutal military regime after being arrested and tortured. I had gone to the camp to investigate reports that villages were being uprooted and brutalized to make way for a natural gas pipeline built by U.S. oil giant Unocal and other multinational corporations. There, I met a young mother from my Karen ethnic group whose baby had recently been killed by Burmese troops providing security for the pipeline.
That was Jane Doe, as she would later be known. She would go on to help establish the legal principle that U.S. corporations can be held liable for complicity in severe human rights abuses abroad. Now, a case being argued before theU.S. Supreme Courton Tuesday may mean that future Jane Does will have no such recourse against corporations.
Jane Doe 1 was a poor farmer whose great misfortune was that she was living in the path of the project when Unocal — now owned by Chevron — and its French and Thai corporate partners began building the pipeline. Their other partner was the Burmese military regime, and the corporations contracted with its army, despite its abhorrent human rights record, to provide security for the project.
The soldiers forced thousands of villagers to provide slave labor for the project. One of those villagers was Jane Doe’s husband. As Jane Doe told me in the camp, the military forced her husband at gunpoint to clear the jungle and carry heavy loads. When he escaped, the soldiers came looking for him. They found Jane Doe instead, nursing her baby near a cooking fire. She told them she didn’t know where her husband was. The soldiers beat her into unconsciousness and kicked her and her baby into the fire. Jane Doe recovered from her injuries; her baby died.
I remember trying to comfort her and thinking: How is it possible that foreign companies can come into Burma, hire a rogue army, make billions of dollars and have no responsibility for what their business partners do? There have been positive changes in Burma recently, but at that time, justice was impossible; the courts served the military. But Unocal was a U.S. company, and I had met American lawyers who believed that U.S. corporations were not above human rights laws
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