A Belgian court has stopped an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by the French oil giant Total in military-ruled Myanmar, dashing the hopes of four refugees who brought the case.
The investigation was the first to involve a company rather than an individual under a controversial Belgian human rights law that claims universal jurisdiction.
The law has caused diplomatic grief after scores of lawsuits flooded Belgian courts claiming human rights violations by world figures, such as Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and U.S. leaders.
But the Supreme Court of Appeals said on Wednesday that the refugees who brought the case did not have the same rights as a Belgian citizen to file a complaint.
"It's over," Alexis Deswaef, one of the lawyers representing the refugees, told Reuters on Friday.
Belgium revised the law in 2003 to make it more difficult for foreigners to use it for politically motivated or frivolous lawsuits.
The refugees filed the lawsuit against Total in 2002, using the law that gives the courts the right to try people accused of crimes against humanity and other atrocities committed anywhere in the world.
They also sued Total Chief Executive Thierry Desmarest and another executive for complicity in the torture and forced labour of workers who were building a pipeline in the country, formerly known as Burma.
Total has denied funding the military in Myanmar but has said the junta paid soldiers to protect its installations and workers. The pipeline was completed in 1998.
At Total's annual shareholders meeting in May, Desmarest said he had no plans to withdraw from Myanmar despite demands by human rights activities, saying such a move would not bring democracy any quicker to the country.
Total and other multinationals have been under pressure from activists to withdraw from Myanmar, shunned for its human rights record and suppression of political opponents.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on its military government.
Asian companies have quickly stepped in to replace Western firms that have withdrawn, vying for Myanmar's natural wealth in oil and gas, timber, gems and minerals.
- 116 Human Rights