NEW YORK - August 7 - The
U.S. State Department has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit against the
Exxon Mobil Corporation for its alleged complicity in human rights violations
in Indonesia, raising questions about the Bush administration's commitment to
corporate responsibility, Human Rights Watch said today.
The civil suit, filed on
June 11, 2001 in the District of Columbia, alleges that the Indonesian military
provided "security services" for Exxon Mobil's joint venture in Indonesia's
conflict-ridden Aceh province, and that the Indonesian military committed "genocide,
murder, torture, crimes against humanity, sexual violence and kidnapping"
while providing security for the company from 1999 to 2001. The plaintiff's claim
that Exxon Mobil was aware of widespread abuses committed by the military but
had failed to take any action to prevent them.
In the wake of business
scandals involving Enron and WorldCom, among others, U.S. President George Bush
has called for "a new ethic of personal responsibility in the business world,"
arguing that Americans need "confidence in the character and conduct of all
of our business leaders."
"Corporate responsibility shouldn't stop at the water's edge," said
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "If the Bush administration
is serious about promoting ethical business practices, it shouldn't be trying
to stop this court case from going forward."
Human Rights Watch is not
a party to the lawsuit and takes no position on claims regarding Exxon Mobil in
Indonesia, but is deeply concerned that the State Department would request that
the case be dismissed rather than taking a neutral position and allow the legal
proceeding to run its course.
The case was filed by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), a U.S. non-governmental
organization, on behalf of eleven anonymous plaintiffs against Exxon Mobil in
a U.S. Federal Court in the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs allege that Exxon
Mobil violated the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victims Protection
Act, international human rights law, and the statutory and common law of the District
of Columbia. The suit held that Exxon Mobil was liable for the alleged abuses
because it provided "logistical and material" support to the military.
Exxon Mobil vigorously denied the allegations and said the lawsuit "recently
filed by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) containing these allegations
is without merit and designed to bring publicity to their organization."
The company later petitioned U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer,
the presiding judge in the case, to solicit an opinion from the State Department
whether this suit would have an adverse effect on U.S. foreign policy. On May
10, Judge Oberdorfer sent a letter to the State Department requesting "out
of an abundance of caution, in the tense times in which we are living…whether
the Department of State has an opinion (non-binding) as to whether adjudication
of this case at this time would impact adversely on interests of the United States"
and seeks specifics about "the nature and significance of that impact."
The letter stated that the plaintiffs alleged that "Exxon Mobil Corporation
and various of its subsidiaries and affiliates ('Exxon') are legally responsible
for human rights violations suffered by plaintiffs at the hands of an Indonesian
Army unit engaged by Exxon to provide security for its Arun Project in Aceh, Indonesia."
The State Department argued that the Indonesian government would view judicial
scrutiny of the company's conduct as a referendum on the human rights record of
the Indonesian armed forces, which would dissuade it from cooperating with the
United States in counter terrorism. However, the State Department itself routinely
criticizes the human rights record of the Indonesian military in its Country Reports
on Human Rights Practices while maintaining diplomatic relations. Indeed, in its
letter to Judge Oberdorfer, it condemned "human rights abuses by elements
of the Indonesian armed forces in locations such as Aceh."
The State Department could have issued a neutral opinion on the suit, but instead
sided with Exxon Mobil and sent a response to Judge Oberdorfer on July 29, 2002
arguing that the case should be dismissed.
The State Department also argued that the litigation's "potential effects
on Indonesia's economy could…adversely affect important United States interests"
and could impede further cooperation with U.S. companies. It said that continued
business with U.S. companies would expose the Indonesian government and local
companies to the highest business standards as another justification for dismissing
the lawsuit, even though the suit could determine whether Exxon Mobil did follow
acceptable business practices.
"The administration can't simultaneously argue that U.S. companies impart
the best business practices in Indonesia while trying to dismiss a case that could
determine whether a U.S. company actually followed those practices," said
The State Department claimed
that the suit may actually hurt progress on human rights in Indonesia. Indonesian
human rights groups, however, fear that the State Department's letter will bolster
and legitimize the Indonesian military's resistance to judicial scrutiny of abuses,
especially in conjunction with the U.S. government's recent decision to resume
limited military cooperation with Indonesia. Human Rights Watch has strongly criticized
the resumption of U.S. military assistance because it could undermine efforts
to strengthen civilian and judicial oversight of the military without clear conditions
on human rights. (For more information see "The Indonesian Military and Ongoing
Abuses," a Human Rights Watch backgrounder, July 2002 available at: www.hrw.org//backgrounder/asia/indo-bck0702.htm).
State Department Undercuts Indonesian Peace, Judiciary
The State Department's efforts to influence the case also undercuts credibility
of U.S. efforts to promote an independent judiciary in Indonesia that is free
of political interference. Ironically, when a suit by the Karaha Bodas Company,
a joint-venture of two U.S. firms, against the Indonesia state energy firm, Pertamina,
came up in talks with his counterpart last week in Jakarta, Colin Powell reportedly
explained that the U.S. government does not interfere with ongoing court cases.
Two weeks before the State Department sent its opinion to Judge Oberdorfer,
Indonesia's Ambassador to the U.S., Soemadi DM Brotodiningrat, sent a strongly
worded letter objecting to the lawsuit to Richard L. Armitage, the U.S. Deputy
Secretary of State. Chillingly, the Ambassador noted that 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
The ambassador's letter also warned that the suit would have an adverse impact
on peace talks in Aceh that are "at an extremely sensitive and delicate stage."
However, the Indonesian security forces have increased military operations, proposed
martial law, and arrested Acehnese peace negotiators since those negotiations
"Instead of condemning the Indonesian government's threats against American
investors and the Aceh peace process, the State Department has apparently buckled
to them," Roth said.
In late June 2002, Exxon Mobil notified the State Department that it had joined
the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights program that began in 2000
and has been adopted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The program
was developed by the State Department in conjunction with the British Foreign
and Commonwealth Office, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, multinational
oil and mining companies, and human rights organizations, including Human Rights
Watch. According to the State Department, the program is designed to "guide
Companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations within an
operating framework that ensures respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
"It is the height of hypocrisy for the State Department to publicly promote
human rights principles for the oil and gas industry and then tell a judge that
scrutiny of an oil company's human rights record runs counter to foreign policy,"
said Roth. "Apparently, principles only matter when they don't matter."
To read Human Rights Watch's letter to U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer,
please see: http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/08/exxon072902.pdf.