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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.

to its facility — the same soldiers they accuse of committing the abuses.

According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the company officials, “were no strangers to the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military,” given widespread media coverage of the abuses and complaints by Indonesian human rights organizations.

It goes on to say that even if the company was not aware that its support was being used to carry out human rights abuses at the time they were committed, “they nevertheless learned of them after the fact, yet continued to use the same troops for security and even demanded an increase in the number of troops protecting the Arun project.”

Company executives at Exxon deny the allegations, saying the claims are “without merit.”

“We have fought the baseless claims for many years,” Exxon’s spokesman David Eglinton said in an email. “While conducting its business in Indonesia, ExxonMobil has worked for generations to improve the quality of life in Aceh through employment of local workers, provision of health services and extensive community investment. The company strongly condemns human rights violations in any form.”

ExxonMobil is the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, with reported earnings last year of $44.8 billion. The majority of that money comes from its operations abroad. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported that the facility in Arun generated as much as one-fourth of the company’s revenues in the early 1990s.

In addition to developing its pipelines and processing facilities, ExxonMobil used that money to build schools, mosques, roads and hospitals in the town around it, Lhokseumawe. It also employed thousands of Indonesians. But according to a 2008 report by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) that examines Exxon’s role in Aceh, a very small amount of ExxonMobil’s profits remained in the province.

The ICTJ says that imbalance contributed to the formation of GAM, which demanded, in part, that Aceh have control over a greater share of the wealth derived from natural resources extracted in the region.

“Natural resources played a key in crystallizing the conflict,” Galuh Wandita, the past director of the ICTJ’s Jakarta office, said in an interview.

Uneven benefits fuel resentment

ExxonMobil maintains a heavy presence in Indonesia, though its Arun facility has scaled back production due to declining reserves. In return, the local economy has suffered.

During a visit there last year, cow droppings and potholes marred the road past the oil giant’s facility. Goats occupied empty food shacks, and unemployed men filled up nearby coffee shops.

At an intersection between two of ExxonMobil’s main clusters, a group of men who worked there as contract labor during the late 1990s smoked under the shade of a tree.

“We felt at the time that there was a lot of money around, but we also felt that the money didn’t compare with our compensation,” said Ibrahim Ismail, 43, adding that Exxon contracted him to do masonry work in 1997.

He said it wasn’t only salaries that were unbalanced, but also aid to the community.

“This is a big company, it’s nothing for them to give something little to the people,” he explained. “They built that road so they could come and take everything out of the ground.”

Ismail said in addition to expropriating land, failing to reduce poverty and causing damage to the surrounding environment, ExxonMobil also brought in the military.

Seeking justice

Under Indonesian law at the time of the abuse, the military was responsible for protecting what the government calls its “strategic economic assets,” which include gas fields. That regulation allowed ExxonMobil to hire the military to protect its facilities. (As part of the military’s reform process, the security role has now gone to the police.)

After the case was filed with the court in Washington, DC, ExxonMobil appealed to various US courts to have it dismissed. In 2009, a trial judge at the DC court did throw out the case, saying the plaintiffs, all non-US citizens living in Indonesia, did not have the standing to bring it to a US court.

In July 2011, the US Federal Appeals Court reversed that decision, allowing it to proceed under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 federal law that allows foreigners to use US courts to hear cases based on violations of international law.

In recent years plaintiffs have used the statute to lodge complaints