Joe Conason's Journal

John Ashcroft takes Unocal's side in a battle with Burmese torture victims.

Published May 30, 2003 9:21PM (EDT)

Ashcroft, Unocal and the Burmese junta
If you've ever wondered what John Ashcroft would do when faced with a choice between defending an energy company and discouraging slavery and murder in the developing world, the unappetizing answer may be found here. FindLaw columnist and Human Rights Watch attorney Joanne Mariner explains how the Justice Department, in its zeal to protect Unocal, is seeking to destroy the Alien Tort Claims Act -- the law that allows people injured by serious violations of international law abroad to seek civil damages in American courts against perps based in the United States.

The case in question is known as John Doe I vs. Unocal Corp. The plaintiffs are "Burmese villagers who claim that they were subjected to forced labor, murder, rape, and torture during the construction of a gas pipeline through their country. Soldiers allegedly committed these abuses while providing security and other services for [Unocal's] pipeline project. " And those alleged abuses were horrific:

"Jane Doe I, one of the plaintiffs in the case, testified that when her husband tried to escape the forced labor program, he was shot at by soldiers, and that, in retaliation for his attempted escape, she and her baby were thrown into a fire. Her child died and she was badly injured.

"Other villagers described the summary execution of people who refused to work, or who became too weak to work effectively."

Citing reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Mariner believes there is no question that the atrocities attributed to the Burmese military occurred. Unocal and its French partner Total vociferously deny any culpability, of course.

But the underlying issue is whether the oil company should be held accountable for crimes allegedly committed on its behalf. A panel of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found evidence that Unocal paid the Burmese regime and encouraged its use of slave labor. (The State Department's most recent report on the Burmese dictatorship's ongoing vileness -- including its "common" use of forced labor and child labor -- is available here.) Now Unocal is appealing that decision, and the attorney general's minions at the Justice Department have intervened with a sweeping brief in support of the company.

Ideologues like Ashcroft are so disdainful of international law -- and so solicitous of corporate privilege -- that they find themselves excusing the most hideous misbehavior abroad. For a man who has boasted about his piety and uprightness, he seems untroubled by an active conscience.

Before the week ends, I also wanted to point everyone to important posts at two other sites: Josh Marshall's devastating series on Tom DeLay and Republican abuses of power in the Texas redistricting battle; and Jack Shafer's continuing Slate takedown of Judith Miller's reporting on those elusive Iraqi WMDs.
[3:20 p.m. PDT, May 30, 2003]
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