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Total Denial: Burmese peasants fight Unocal

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 20th, 2007

Continuing our film recommendations from last week, we'd like to mention "Total Denial" - a new documentary on corporate-financed human rights abuses in Burma. The film was made by Bulgarian-born Milena Kaneva. The Austin-Chronicle newspaper in Texas called the film: "heart-wrenching and utterly disturbing."

"Total Denial" chronicles a major human rights lawsuit brought by EarthRights International and villagers from Burma against oil giant Unocal, a company based right here in California, as well as a French multinational named Total. A number of screenings are coming up in the next few weeks here in the U.S.  If you live in the Bay area, do check it out on Thursday, in Los Angeles on March 27th or in Washington DC on April 11th.

The lawsuit was brought by 11 Burmese peasants who suffered a variety of human rights violations at the hands of Burmese army units that were securing the pipeline route. These abuses included forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture, and murder.

The case was spearheaded by Ka Hsaw Wa, the executive director of Earth Rights International, an organization based in Washington DC. Of the Karen indigenous minority in Burma, he was one of the student leaders in the 1988 nation-wide student uprising for democracy and freedom, and has been a human rights activist since he fled Burma in 1988. He was helped by Paul Hoffman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Hadsell & Stormer, and Judith Brown Chomsky.

Almost a decade after the case was brought, the court decided that:
"Unocal knew that the military had a record of committing human rights abuses; that the Project hired the military to provide security for the Project, a military that forced villagers to work and entire villages to relocate for the benefit of the Project; that the military, while forcing villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence; and that Unocal knew or should have known that the military did commit, was committing and would continue to commit these tortious acts."
The legal basis for the case was a laws called the Alien Tort Claims Act (a 1789 law intended to curb piracy on the high seas by extending U.S. jurisdiction to cover breaches of international law outside its borders), which has been used primarily to sue international human rights abuses in U.S. courts.  In recent years a number of plaintiffs have sued multinational corporations for abuses outside the U.S. under this law. While many of these cases are now in court, Unocal decided to settle out of court and compensate the victims in January 2006.

Earth Rights International are using the same law to pursue another major oil company here in California (Chevron) with some success for abuses in Nigeria.

The case is based on two incidents: the shooting of peaceful protestors at Chevron's Parabe offshore platform and the destruction of two villages by soldiers in Chevron helicopters and boats.

Last week U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in San Francisco agreed that the Nigerian plaintiffs: "have presented evidence of a link between the conduct of Chevron in the United States and the attacks in Nigeria at issue" as well as evidence that the corporation had substantial control over its Nigerian unit, that it  "designed and adjusted the general security policies and procedures" of its subsidiary and approved payments from the subsidiary to the Nigerian government security forces.


Incidentally, Earth Rights International is also pursuing a third Alien Tort Claims Act case against Shell in Nigeria for complicity in human rights abuses.

The particular abuses at issue are the November 10, 1995 hangings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen, two leaders of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), the torture and detention of Owens Wiwa, and the shooting of a woman who was peacefully protesting the bulldozing of her crops in preparation for a Shell pipeline by Nigerian troops called in by Shell.