USA: State Department Tries to Get ExxonMobil Suit Dropped

Human Rights Groups Shocked
Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON - Weeks before the State Department told a trial judge that a lawsuit against oil giant ExxonMobil for alleged human rights abuses in Indonesia could endanger Washington's 'war on terror', Indonesia hinted the suit might put U.S. interests at risk, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).

News that the State Department urged a federal court judge to dismiss the case after he asked about claims by ExxonMobil's lawyers that the lawsuit could compromise U.S. interests, particularly the 'war on terrorism', has shocked the human rights community.

The civil suit claims that ExxonMobil is responsible for grave human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in Indonesia's war-torn Aceh province, home to a major ExxonMobil natural-gas operation.

While the Department could have remained neutral in the case, it came down squarely on the company's side in a letter sent to Judge Louis Oberdorfer Jul. 29.

It said Jakarta would view judicial review of the company's
conduct as a slight on the human rights record of Indonesia's armed forces (TNI), which could dissuade the government from cooperating in the war on terrorism.

The lawsuit's potential effects on Indonesia's economy could, the letter said, adversely affect important United States interests.

But HRW says that two weeks before the State Department wrote to the judge, Jakarta's ambassador in Washington, Soemadi D.M. Brotodiningrat, sent a letter strongly objecting to the lawsuit to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

The letter said the lawsuit will definitely compromise the serious efforts of the Indonesian government to guarantee the safety of foreign investments, including in particular those from the United States.

Brotodiningrat also warned that the suit would have an adverse impact on the ongoing peace talks on Aceh, which are taking place in Geneva, and which the letter said, are at an extremely sensitive and delicate stage.

The rights case was filed last year by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), a Washington-based group, on behalf of 11 unnamed Acehnese. It alleged that ExxonMobil was liable for abuses committed against them and their family members because it provided logistical and material support to the TNI, which guaranteed security around the gas installation.

The company has strongly denied these charges, insisting repeatedly that the case was without merit and that it was itself deeply troubled and highly concerned about the violence in North Aceh.

The Department's letter caught human rights groups by surprise, especially because it is the first time it has urged the dismissal of a case filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act ATCA), a law that permits foreigners to sue for damages for serious human rights violations in federal court against defendants who are present in the United States.

The State Department has stayed neutral in similar suits brought by alleged victims of military abuses in Nigeria, Burma, and other countries where plaintiffs alleged that the forces involved were protecting U.S. corporate interests when abuses were comitted.

Indonesia, it now appears, may be a special case as the Bush administration tries to recruit the TNI for the war on terrorism in Southeast Asia.

HRW's director, Kenneth Roth, said the Department's actions mocked President George W. Bush's focus on corporate responsibility in light of the many recent Wall Street scandals.

"Corporate responsibility shouldn't stop at the water's edge. If the Bush administration is serious about promoting ethical business practices, it shouldn't be trying to stop this court case from going forward.

According to the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR): gross and persistent human rights abuses are understandably embarrassing to government and corporations, but hopefully an American court will decide that the facts of the ExxonMobil case should not be silenced out of hand.

The State Department's action comes amid a major push, particularly by hardliners in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, to normalize military relations with Indonesia, the world's most populous predominantly Muslim nation.

Last week, the administration made a formal announcement that military training to Indonesia's armed forces was being restored right away and that about 50 million dollars would be earmarked over the next two years for training and equipping Indonesian counter-terrorism forces.

The funding was cut off in 1999 after TNI-organized and
-armed militias rampaged throughout East Timor after its inhabitants voted for independence in a UN-sanctioned referendum.

Human rights groups and even various forces within the State Department argue that the TNI continues to commit grave abuses, particularly in Aceh, where it has faced a low-level insurgency since the 1970s that has escalated over the past several years.

Last week, President Megawati Sukarnoputri said the government would crush the insurgency, fuelling speculation that Jakarta will declare martial law in Aceh, where it has been steadily building up reinforcements.

The State Department's letter argued, among other things,
that the presence of ExxonMobil in Indonesia would expose its government and local companies to the highest business standards and that the suit could actually harm the cause of human rights there.

Meanwhile, in Aceh itself this week, 10 people were reported killed, among them five whose bodies were found Monday near the ExxonMobil plant.

The killings took place as U.S. ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni was in Indonesia with a private group that is promoting peace talks between Jakarta and the Acehnese rebel groups.

To read the State Department's letter to U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer, please see:

Copyright 2002 IPS

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