Over Human Rights
by Garry M. Leech
The Bush White House is once again undermining international human rights by trying to prevent foreign victims of abuses by U.S. corporations from filing charges in U.S. courts. Among such cases currently being addressed in U.S. Federal Courts are suits filed on behalf of Colombian unions against Coca-Cola and Drummond Mining for using right-wing paramilitary death squads to target union members in Colombia. The Bush administration is claiming that such cases against multinational corporations are hurting U.S. foreign policy and undermining the war on terrorism. The White House is making it very clear that in the eyes of the Bush administration the interests of corporate America take precedence over individuals whose human rights have been violated by U.S. companies.
For more than 20 years, foreign victims of human rights abuses committed by U.S. corporations operating overseas and brutal regimes allied with the United States have been filing charges in U.S. Federal Courts under the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act. This statute allows victims of human rights abuses to seek justice in the United States for violations that occurred abroad.
The White House is now seeking to curtail the ability of foreign nationals to seek justice in U.S. courts because some of these suits target governments allied with Washington in the war against terrorism. The Bush administration is also concerned with several recent suits that have been filed against the United States government, including one on behalf of prisoners detained at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, following their capture in Afghanistan.
In May, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a 30-page brief in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by Burmese citizens against the California-based Unocol Corporation. The brief calls on the court to limit the ability of foreign citizens to seek justice in U.S. courts for human rights violations committed abroad because such lawsuits are harming U.S. foreign policy and undermining the war on terror. The Burmese plaintiffs allege that during the building of a $1.2 billion gas pipeline, Unocol and its partner in the project, Burma's brutal military regime, are responsible for human rights abuses committed against workers, including the use of forced labor.
Last year, in a similar case, the Bush administration asked a federal court to dismiss charges brought against ExxonMobil for abuses in Indonesia because the Indonesian government is an ally in the war on terror. However, the new brief filed by the Justice Department does not only seek to have the charges against Unocol dismissed, it is an attempt to prevent any such cases ever being heard in U.S. Federal Courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
Two Colombia-related Alien Tort Claims Act cases currently being addressed by U.S. Federal Courts involve Drummond Mining and Coca-Cola. In March 2002, SINTRAMIENERGETICA, the Colombian union that represents workers at Alabama-based Drummond Mining's Colombian mines, filed suit in Alabama charging that the company hired right-wing paramilitaries to murder three union leaders. This case is still waiting to be heard.
In July 2001, a suit was filed in Florida by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL—the Colombian union that represents workers at Coca-Cola's Colombian bottling plants; the estate of a murdered union leader; and five other unionists who worked for Coca-Cola and were threatened, kidnapped or tortured by right-wing paramilitaries (see, Coca-Cola Accused of Using Death Squads to Target Union Leaders). While the court dismissed the charges against Coca-Cola, it has allowed the case against the multinational company's Colombian bottlers to proceed. In the meantime, the plaintiffs are appealing the dismissal of the charges against Coca-Cola.
If the Justice Department's attempt to redefine the Alien Tort Claims Act is successful, cases such as the ongoing Coca-Cola and Drummond suits will likely be dismissed. As a result, U.S. corporations and governments allied with Washington will be able to continue violating the human rights of people who have no chance of obtaining justice in their homelands. Once again, the Bush administration has made it clear that it intends to place the interests of U.S. corporations over the human rights of innocent people. Additionally, the Bush White House continues to use the war on terror as a justification for furthering U.S. corporate interests at home and abroad.
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org