Marco Simons is the U.S. Legal Director for EarthRights International, which represented the plaintiffs in Doe v. Unocal Corp. and is currently representing villagers suing Chevron for human rights abuses in Nigeria.
Recent media reports have suggested that Western oil and gas companies are increasingly looking to investment in Burma, also known as Myanmar, which has languished under a brutal military dictatorship for nearly two decades. The Bush administration’s attitude toward U.S. oil companies in Burma is, sadly, emblematic of its general policy of valuing petroleum over human rights and democracy. Whatever efforts Bush has made to promote human rights stop at the well, the pipeline, and the pump.
It’s no secret that the Bush administration is far from a standard-bearer for human rights. But if there’s one place in which Bush has been a consistent, strong advocate for human rights and democracy, it would be in Burma. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. government has reauthorized the prohibition on new investment in Burma by U.S. companies, enacted a ban on imports, and frozen the assets of Burma’s military leaders. The U.S. has also been a driving force behind recent efforts to bring the situation in Burma to the attention of the U.N. Security Council. By any measure, Bush has been at least as committed to human rights and democracy in Burma as his predecessors.
Even in Burma, however, Bush’s support for human rights yields to his fondness for the oil and gas industry. Burma has large natural gas reserves, and multinational oil corporations want to cash in. Chevron Corporation is currently the largest U.S. investor in Burma, with a partnership stake in the multi-billion-dollar Yadana gas pipeline project. The Yadana project was originally developed by Unocal, another American oil company, which was acquired by Chevron last year. (Although new investment in Burma is prohibited, the pipeline is grandfathered in under an exception, pushed by Unocal, for preexisting projects.)
The Yadana pipeline has been repeatedly condemned by human rights and environmental advocates as one of the most destructive “development” projects in the world. The Burmese military government is a direct partner in the project, and Burmese soldiers providing security and other services to the pipeline project have conscripted villagers for forced labor on a vast scale, as well as committing murder, rape and torture. These abuses have been widely acknowledged; before Bush took office, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that “refugee accounts of forced labor” on the project “appear to be credible.”
The Bush administration has close ties to Chevron. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a member of the Chevron Board of Directors for 10 years before Bush was elected, and even had a Chevron oil tanker named for her until it was quietly renamed after Bush took office. And Halliburton, the oilfield services giant formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, has numerous ties to Chevron, signing several multimillion-dollar contracts during Cheney’s tenure. And yet there is no evidence that the Bush administration has used its connections to convince Chevron to divest its Burmese holdings, despite the evidence of abuses committed on the Yadana project and Bush’s public position on promoting human rights and democracy.
Indeed, even before Chevron acquired Unocal and the Yadana project, Bush’s government actively took steps to thwart accountability for the Yadana project. When refugees who had suffered rape, torture, enslavement, and murder at the hands of soldiers protecting the Yadana pipeline sued Unocal in U.S. court, the Bush administration intervened to try to convince the courts that the lawsuit should not proceed. The administration essentially argued that, even if the case would not actually interfere with U.S. relations with Burma, holding Unocal liable would create a precedent that could conflict with U.S. foreign policy in other parts of the world. (The lawsuit, Doe v. Unocal Corp., was ultimately resolved before the courts considered the administration's position, with Unocal compensating the victims in a historic settlement—see http://www.earthrights.org/legal/unocal/.)
If the Bush administration opposes accountability for human rights violations committed by the oil and gas industry in a pariah state such as Burma, the situation is even worse when oil companies commit abuses in countries friendly to the United States. In the troubled Indonesian region of Aceh, security forces hired by ExxonMobil have committed rape, murder and torture against local villagers. When the victims filed suit in federal court against the oil giant for compensation, the Bush administration sent a letter to the court stating that the case could cause a “serious adverse impact” on “the ongoing struggle against international terrorism.” The judge subsequently dismissed parts of the case.
In Colombia, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum has employed military contractors to protect its pipeline from suspected attacks by insurgents. When Occidental's contractors directed the Colombian military in a misguided air raid on the village of Santo Domingo, killing three civilians, their relatives sued the oil company in federal court in California. As in the case against ExxonMobil, the Bush administration argued that the case could have “negative consequences for our bilateral relationship” with Colombia, which it called a “partner in the vital struggles against terrorism and narcotics trafficking.” Relying on the administration’s position, the federal court dismissed the case.
In the Occidental lawsuit, the Bush administration went a step further than it had before, and turned its favoritism for oil production over human rights into an actual pronouncement of policy. Adjudicating whether an oil company committed human rights abuses, the administration argued, could deter other oil companies from getting involved in unstable regions such as Colombia, and “reduced U.S. investment in Colombia’s oil industry may detract from the vital U.S. policy goal of expanding and diversifying our sources of imported oil.” In other words, oil production is, in and of itself, such an important “policy goal” that it trumps human rights.
This is the essence of the Bush administration’s diplomacy. Increasing oil production is “vital,” while accountability for human rights violations is inconvenient at best. When it comes to Bush’s foreign policy, oil remains king.