ExxonMobil sued for allegedly brutalizing Indonesians

Villagers claim the company is responsible for human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military

Published April 26, 2013 5:06PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on 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.
Global Post
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 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 against Coca-Cola and multi-national mining giant Rio Tinto for alleged involvement in human-rights abuses committed overseas. Many of them have turned to US courts because their own justice systems have failed to hear their claims.

“When cases are dropped at a national level, victims try to find different ways, such as the Alien Tort Claims Act,” said the ICTJ’s Wandita. “It’s a pity that we can’t get justice locally and nationally, but that’s the situation in Indonesia at this point.”

Only two claims against corporations have made it to trial under the Alien Tort Statute, which was barely used until the early 1980s. Both were decided in favor of the defendants.

Since its revival, corporations and business associations have voiced opposition to it, saying the legislation could threaten foreign investment.

In past reports about the ExxonMobil case, advisers to the US government have argued that pursuing the complaint could harm the country’s trade competitiveness abroad and hurt foreign policy interests. Indonesia has been a major US ally in the fight against terrorism and is seen as key to the current administration strategy of “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific.

There were also worries that it could have implications for the way US corporations operate in Indonesia, a country rich in coal and other mineral assets. Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan, for example, has hired the Indonesian military and police to handle security operations at its massive gold and copper mine in Timika, Papua, home to decades long, low-level separatist insurgency.

Although police are now in charge of most of the security, armed military guards do provide some assistance.

Both Freeport and ExxonMobil have signed onto the voluntary principles on security and human rights, an effort drafted in 2000 to get oil, gas and mining corporations to follow a set of guidelines when providing security for their operations that would protect human rights.

That means those corporations aren’t suddenly going to start giving up on the principles because the Kiobel verdict hasn’t held Royal Dutch Petroleum accountable. But the ruling does stir concerns.

“There is now a danger that, while we feel certain that US corporations with US based decisions would be still subject to the ATS, foreign corporations are not and that seems to create an imbalance in terms of who’s responsible and who’s not responsible for their actions,” Collingsworth said. “The burden for accountability on those corporations is going to have to rest on their home countries.”

A call for more accountability

On April 18, a day after the Kiobel verdict, Amnesty International released a report in Jakarta calling on the government to address past human rights abuses in Aceh, in part by setting up a truth and reconciliation commission by the end of 2013.

Human rights groups have long accused Indonesia’s military of enjoying impunity for violations of national and international law. They say failure to bring justice to the victims of the conflict in Aceh could undermine the shaky peace that has taken hold there since a cease-fire agreement brought an end to fighting in 2005.

“The Exxon case is another example of how it can take years for victims to access their rights,” said Isabelle Arradon, the deputy director of Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific program. “It is really the responsibility of the international community to ensure that when crimes under international law are committed, that adequate mechanisms are in place to ensure effective remedy for people.”

People who still live around the gas field in Lhokseumawe say everyone was affected by the separatist battle in some way. Many recall how the military instilled fear among the civilian population.

“We were all afraid,” said Yusuf Ismail, a 60-year-old farmer who tells how soldiers ransacked and set fire to homes in the area after a roadside explosion around 2001. He remembers hearing gunshots from the rice field where he sought refuge immediately after the blast.

Fear has kept many people in Aceh from speaking out. All of the plaintiffs in the ExxonMobil case are anonymous. According to the complaint filed by their lawyers, however, they suffered months of torture, repeated beatings and severe bodily harm, including one man who lost his right hand and left eye.

Syukri corroborates those stories. When Aceh was under a six-month state of emergency, in 2003, he says the separatists were so ingrained in society that everyone was involved with them in some way.

He believes a neighbor gave him up to the military because his brother fought with the rebels. One evening, as Syukri was chatting with neighbors, five soldiers arrived and dragged him down the road by his ankles.

For two days he sat and suffered beatings. His knees swelled so much he couldn’t walk. Some of the villagers petitioned the soldiers to release him, vouching that he was not a rebel, but Syukri believes it was a friend from the local military who eventually secured his freedom.

The resentment and desire for payback has ebbed over the years, but he also believes Exxon bears some responsibility.

“Exxon wasn’t directly involved, but they put the military at that checkpoint,” Syukri said. “And that military beat a lot of people.”

By Sara Schonhardt

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