After languishing in the courts for two years, a lawsuit that accuses ExxonMobil of complicity in human rights violations is beginning to move, thanks to the Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold the Alien Tort Claims Act.
In June 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit charging ExxonMobil of complicity in human rights violations at its liquid natural gas plant in Aceh, Indonesia. Judge Louis Oberdorfer, of the U.S. district court in Washington, D.C., asked ExxonMobil and ILRF to file briefs indicating how the Supreme Court's ruling on Sosa V. Alvarez-Machain will impact their case.
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The plaintiffs are 11 unnamed villagers who accuse Indonesian military units guarding ExxonMobil's facility of rape, torture, murder, and kidnappings. The oil giant is also charged with knowingly paying soldiers involved in extreme abuses and providing them with facilities and equipment to carry out the crimes.
ExxonMobil's Aceh operation is anchored at the heart of a fierce separatist conflict that has raged for nearly three decades. Indonesia has been fighting armed rebels of the Free Aceh Movement and has been largely unsuccessful due to the group's heavy-handed tactics. Unarmed civilians have suffered the brunt of military operations and human rights groups have extensive documentation of military atrocities: systemic torture, beatings, rape, unlawful detentions and imprisonment, and summary executions. An estimated 15,000 people have been killed, and many more have perished in "forced disappearances."
The case had been stalled since July 2002, when the State Department's legal adviser, William H. Taft IV, wrote a letter urging Judge Oberdorfer to dismiss it. Taft claimed that action against ExxonMobil would have a negative impact on the U.S. government's ability to fight the war on terror.
The ILRF is encouraged by the Supreme Court ruling on Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain. "That's a good thing from our perspective," says Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the ILRF. "We expect to move forward in the case."