Judge Says Human Rights Case Against ExxonMobil Can Move Forward

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that a human rights lawsuit against ExxonMobil can move forward, concluding there is enough evidence for a jury to consider whether the oil giant is responsible for the alleged murder, rape, beating, and torture of villagers committed by Indonesian soldiers who were guarding the company’s gas fields.

In 2001, 11 Aceh villagers sued Exxon Mobil Corporation, two of its US affiliates and its Indonesian subsidiary, ExxonMobil Oil Indonesia (EMOI), for unspecified damages. The lawsuit filed by the Aceh villagers says ExxonMobil should be held liable for “killings and torture committed by military security forces protecting and paid for by” ExxonMobil of Indonesia. Aceh experienced nearly three decades of bloody conflict before the Indonesian Government signed a peace pact with separatist rebels in August 2005.

ExxonMobil had argued that there was insufficient evidence to tie the soldiers guarding its assets to the atrocities in the village of Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, where ExxonMobil was developing a natural gas plant.

“Is the owner of a swimming pool insulated from liability per se for a lifeguard’s negligence simply because the lifeguard is required to be there? Surely not,” wrote U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer of the District of Columbia in a ruling Wedneday. “There would still be issues of negligence in hiring or supervision and of control — the exact issues disputed here.”

The plaintiffs, Oberdorfer wrote in a 30-page opinion, have provided “sufficient evidence, at this stage, for their allegations of serious abuse.”

“There is evidence that these security forces committed the alleged atrocities; that [ExxonMobil of Indonesia] paid for the security; which was provided “as may be requested by [EMOI]” under a contract; that EMOI had the right to influence the forces’ “deployment logistics” and “to influence the security plan and the development strategy;” and that EMOI “assisted in the management of security affairs . . . on behalf of” the Indonesian government entity that provided these forces,” Oberdorfer’s opinion says.

“Additionally, there is evidence that EMOI alone was not “equipped to handle all the issues that were cropping up” with security and therefore “went up the chain and request[ed] additional corporate kinds of support” from Exxon Mobil Corporation-which enforced “uncompromising controls” over EMOI’s security. In light of this and similar evidence, EMOI’s and Exxon Mobil Corporation’s ultimate liability is a question entrusted to a finder of fact.”

Oberdorfer added that internal documents from ExxonMobil’s Indonesian division suggested that “unauthorized acts of violence were foreseeable.”

The judge said one email discussed “the poor reputation of the Indonesian military, especially in the area of respecting human rights and in their predilection for ‘rogue’/clandestine operations.”

The State Department urged Oberdorfer to reject the lawsuit in 2002, claiming it would violate Indonesia’s sovereignty and cut into U.S. Efforts on the war on terror. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court in June refused to intervene in the matter in which ExxonMobil said in an appeal that the lawsuit might interfere with U.S. foreign policy.

Michael Hausfeld, an attorney with Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, the lead counsel for Aceh villagers, said Oberdorfer’s ruling has “global implications.”

“It sends the signal to U.S. companies operating overseas that they cannot expect to facilitate and permit these kinds of abuses in the countries where they are operating and escape without punishment. We intend to hold Exxon Mobil accountable for horrible acts committed by their security, on their watch, that they could have and should have prevented.”  

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Margaret Ross said the company will continue to “vigorously defend against these baseless claims.”

“ExxonMobil condemns human rights violations in any form and has actively expressed these views to governments and others around the world,” Ross said. “The claims are based on the alleged conduct of the Indonesia military against citizens of Aceh in Aceh during a civil conflict. There is no claim that an ExxonMobil affiliate participated in any human rights violations or any other wrongdoing.”

Exxon Mobil, is the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company and has recently set records for earning the largest U.S. quarterly profits in U.S. history.

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