Sunday, October 7, 2007

Oil and crimes against humanity in Burma

Members of the opposition to the military junta in Burma have long called for sanctions on foreign investors, most particularly oil and gas companies such as California’s Unocal and France’s Total, partners in the Yadana pipeline (map at right) and subject of suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act claiming these companies were accomplices to murder, rape and forced labor committed by Myanmar (i.e., junta) military personnel assigned to clear terrain and protect the project from opponents. Total was dismissed from the US action, but was the subject of a criminal suit in France based on the same facts. Both cases were settled following the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, which indicated that private corporations could perhaps be held liable for human rights abuses committed by the foreign regimes with which they do business (see my case comment here). Despite Total's agreeing to provide significant long-term assistance to the population most affected by the pipeline in the form of infrastructure and health and education services as well as money damages (see William Bourdon in the Revue de Science Criminelle, 2005 no. 4), Belgium has just reopened an investigation into crimes against humanity claimed to have been committed by Total. The rather skimpy information in Le Monde seems to indicate that, except for the crime(s) charged, this is the same case, with the same named defendants and perhaps even the same plaintiffs, as the one settled in France (note that in France, just as victims can request that the prosecutor initiate criminal proceedings, they can settle with the defendant and close the case). The Belgian case was brought in 2002 under the universal jurisdiction statute, but the Cour de cassation (Supreme Court) ruled in 2005 that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Further investigation by the Defense ministry (? interesting twist, n'est-pas?) has resulted in a hearing being set for the end of October to determine whether the case should proceed. Stay tuned.

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