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Indonesians sue ExxonMobil in US court

Villagers in Aceh claim ExxonMobil is responsible for human rights abuses committed by Indonesian soldiers guarding its natural gas pipeline and processing facility.

Indonesia1 aceh exxon mobil 2013 04 24Enlarge
A group of men sit outside a claptrap coffee shop near ExxonMobil's facility in Lhokseumawe. Ibrahim Ismail, the man in orange, used to work as a contractor for the company. He says few of its profits have gone back to the community, particularly as production has slowed. (Sara Schonhardt/GlobalPost)

LHOKSEUMAWE, Aceh — Syukri A-Wahap still bears scars from the two days he spent tied to a chair at a military checkpoint here in northern Indonesia in 2003.

Indonesian soldiers who suspected he was aiding separatist rebels used their guns to try and beat a confession out of him. With the butt of an SS1 rifle they cracked his skull and busted his lower lip.

Syukri says he now suffers from short-term memory loss, pointing to a zigzag scar beneath a shock of thick, black hair.

“I didn’t feel anything,” he said, recalling the lengthy interrogations. “It felt like I was already dead.”

His story is one of thousands involving kidnap, torture, rape and murder at the hands of the Indonesian military, which some victims here say was aided by US oil giant ExxonMobil.

In 2001, 11 villagers in Indonesia’s Aceh province brought a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and its Indonesian affiliate, saying the company is responsible for human rights abuses committed by Indonesian soldiers guarding its natural gas pipeline and processing facility at Arun. At the time, Arun was one of the world’s most lucrative natural gas projects.

According to a complaint filed with the US Federal District Court in Washington, DC, in June 2001, ExxonMobil, “directly supported these human rights abuses by supporting the military security forces in an effort to protect defendants’ interest in the project.”

The case resembles another, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which was brought by plaintiffs in Nigeria who alleged that the oil company was responsible for abuses committed by the Nigerian military providing them with security.

On April 17, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Royal Dutch Petroleum, stating that a US federal law, the Alien Tort Statute, could not be used to hold corporations liable for abuses committed on foreign soil.

The verdict in that case is a win for major multinational companies, and legal advisers say it could severely limit foreigners’ ability to file suit in US courts against corporations they accuse of violating international laws.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs, however, say the Exxon case is different, and they are certain it will go forward.

“We have different facts,” said Terry Collingsworth, the lead co-counsel in the case and the executive director of International Rights Advocates, a non-profit organization representing victims of human rights abuses.

The four opinions issued in the Kiobel case stated that because it involved a foreign company operating in a foreign country with foreign victims, that it didn’t have sufficient US contact to proceed, Collingsworth said.

ExxonMobil on the other hand, sprung from Standard Oil and is currently headquartered in Texas.

The case has been pending in the court of appeals awaiting guidance from the Supreme Court, said Collingsworth, who also noted that the plaintiffs have claims under state law that are not subjected to the Kiobel analysis.

“We think the facts are so good we will finally set an example of how you go forward with one of these cases and survive the years of challenges and roadblocks to finally get justice,” he said. “This case is going forward, period.”

Haris Azhar, the chairman of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence in Jakarta, said seeing the case through was important, since failure to achieve justice in the Exxon case could create the impression that “corporations don’t need to take human rights issues seriously.”

Owning up

For three decades Aceh was locked in a bloody separatist battle between Indonesian military forces and the rebel Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, which was fighting to break away from the Indonesian state.

Rights groups estimate between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in violence that wracked the resource-rich province, a place where US energy giant Mobil Oil discovered one of the world’s largest natural gas fields at Arun in the early 1970s.

Exxon took control of the Arun project in 1999 through a merger with Mobil Oil. At that time, the province was no longer considered a military operations zone, as it had been between 1989 and 1998, but the military was still launching attacks in local villages against people they suspected of being associated with GAM.

The plaintiffs say ExxonMobil is liable for abuse that occurred between 1999 and 2001 because it “supervised, controlled and directed” the military security forces assigned