Senior Staff Writer
HOUSTON, June 13 -- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney has cleared the way for Unocal Corp. to stand trial in September concerning alleged human rights violations during construction of the $1 billion Yadana natural gas pipeline in military-ruled Myanmar.
In a longstanding, complex case, attorneys representing 15 Myanmese refugees claim Unocal was complicit in human rights abuses by the Myanmese military. The abuses allegedly included slave labor, numerous deaths, and property seizures. Unocal has denied the allegations (OGJ, June 26, 2000, p. 24).
The lawsuit was filed in 1996. US District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew dismissed the villagers' claims against Unocal on Sept. 5, 2000, saying Unocal did not control Myanmar's military and was not liable for the military's conduct.
Lew's ruling left open the option for the villagers' claims to be pursued in California state court. Meanwhile, the federal ruling is being appealed, said Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Foundation in Washington, DC.
The ILRC has filed six human rights lawsuits against various US corporations— including Unocal—on behalf of plaintiffs living outside the US.
Under California state law, Judge Chaney has said Unocal may be liable under the legal doctrine known as "vicarious liability," meaning that joint-venture partners are responsible for each other's actions in their business venture together.
The Yadana consortium consists of operator TotalFinaElf SA 31.24%, Unocal 28.26%, Thailand's upstream state firm PTT Exploration & Production 25.5%, and Myanmar's state oil company Myanma Oil & Gas Enterprise 15%.
The 665 km Yadana pipeline extends from Yadana gas field off Myanmar to a Thailand power plant in Ratchaburi province. The pipeline was completed in early 2000 and is in operation.
Chaney's comments came June 11 as she denied Unocal's motion for dismissal of the case. In a separate judgment issued at the same time, Chaney agreed to dismiss all the tort claims against Unocal. Those claims were the individual villagers' charges of abuse.
Barry Lane, a Unocal spokesman in Los Angeles, said, "We are going to vigorously defend ourselves in court. Unocal's actions are not at issue here. . .the question is: Are we as a company responsible for the government of Myanmar. . .are we responsible for the military's actions? We contend, no, we are not."
Collingsworth said of Unocal, "We just have to show that they benefited from the business relationship with the regime. As we have alleged from the outset, the evidence shows that Unocal entered into a business relationship with the brutal military regime in Burma (Myanmar), knowing that the military would engage in massive human rights violations in furtherance of the project."
Unocal has described the lawsuit as a political effort to force it—the largest remaining US investor in Myanmar—to pull out of the country.
"We are very proud of the project and how it is being conducted," Lane said. Unocal argues it cannot be held responsible for its partners' actions on the pipeline project and adds that the pipeline eventually could help improve working conditions in Myanmar.