Important Human Rights Tool
York Times Editorial
August 8, 2003
A federal appeals
court based in California is poised to rule on a case that could
have broad implications for human rights worldwide. A group of
villagers from Myanmar, formerly Burma, charge that when a gas
pipeline was built in their region, they were subjected to forced
labor — and that the American corporation Unocal played
a role in their mistreatment (an accusation that Unocal denies).
A three-judge panel has already ruled that the suit can go forward.
But the Bush administration has asked an 11-judge panel of the
same court to block it, arguing that it interferes unduly with
rights issues of this kind are showing up with greater frequency
in American courts, and they raise an array of legal questions,
some of which could indeed affect America's relations with other
nations. But that is not true in this and similar cases. It is
important that the California appeals court, and other courts,
stand by the basic principle that these suits can go forward.
The three-judge panel
of the court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth
Circuit, ruled last year that the Myanmar villagers could sue
Unocal under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a two-centuries-old law
that allows noncitizens to file civil lawsuits under limited circumstances.
The case must allege a violation of "specific, universal
and obligatory" international norms: egregious acts, like
the forced labor the Myanmar villagers say Unocal aided and abetted.
And the defendant must be present in the United States —
physically, for human defendants, or by virtue of where they do
business, in the case of corporations.
The Bush administration
argues that permitting the Myanmar villagers to sue will interfere
with American foreign policy, including the war on terrorism.
But this is false. The United States has no interest in protecting
companies that engage in forced labor or other such abuses. The
appeals court should adhere to decades of legal precedents and
reject the Bush administration's argument.
human rights suits become more common in American courts, there
will inevitably be tougher calls. If a court determined that foreign
policy concerns were real in some future case, it would have at
its disposal a variety of legal doctrines allowing it to avoid
deciding the case. But in the suit before it, where such extraordinary
circumstances are not present, the Ninth Circuit should make clear
that the Myanmar villagers have a right to be heard.