Aceh lawsuit against Exxon is latest victim of Bush’s intervention in judiciary

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In yet another example of Bush’s cowboy-style government, Washington has announced that it will block a lawsuit against US multinational ExxonMobil by victims of the notorious Indonesian military’s atrocities in Aceh.

ExxonMobil, accused of well-documented human-rights abuses at its oil facilities in strife-torn Aceh, has manipulated the current frenzy over the US’s “war on terrorism”, saying that the court case could undermine the US campaign. The Dow Jones on August 6 quoted US state department sources as saying that the lawsuit “could impair cooperation with the US across the full spectrum of diplomatic initiatives, including counter terrorism.” A letter from the department to judge Louis Oberdorfer, expressed worries that any judicial review of the company’s conduct would hurt Jakarta “at a time when a number of interests, both geopolitical and economic, were at stake.” Earlier, Jakarta told Washington that the court action “will definitely compromise the serious efforts of the Indonesian government” to guarantee the safety of US investments.

On June 22 last year the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), representing 11 Acehnese villagers, filed a lawsuit in Washington against ExxonMobil (which often trades under the name Esso), accusing it of actively abetting human-rights abuses in northern Sumatra. Exxon has been accused of hiring local army units to protect its gas-fields in Aceh, despite knowing that army units were brutal in their fight against dissidents. It is also accused of complicity in the murder, torture and sexual abuse of local people, and of helping the Indonesian military to dig mass-graves and build torture-centres (for more details see Crescent, July 1-15, 2001).

Oil-rich Aceh is the source of one third of Indonesia’s total oil and gas exports, with American multinationals given an almost completely free hand by the Suharto regime to exploit the region’s natural reserves, at the same time enriching Suharto’s family. The conduct of American multinationals is characteristic of their actions elsewhere in the region. Another lawsuit, involving Burmese peasants against US company Unocal Corp., highlights gross abuses committed by the brutal Burmese military, who were protecting the pipeline on behalf of Unocal’s Yadana Pipeline project in southern Burma. On June 11 a US judge finally ordered Unocal to stand trial next month after a six-year litigation.

The intervention in the Exxon case shows that Bush is even willing to defy his own judiciary (through which he won his own presidential election) in order to find allies for his megalomaniac campaign, ignoring protests from members of Congress and from human-rights groups. In a statement on August 7, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the intervention showed the inability of the Bush administration to handle corporate abuses in the wake of recent Wall Street scandals. Sixteen members of Congress and two senators have also protested against the intervention.

The latest US action is only one of a series of examples that shows that the US government is evolving into the kind of government it has criticised regularly for human-rights and judicial abuses. First it insisted that its troops must be exempt from war crimes law. Then on August 6 it refused a federal court judgement’s demand that it hand over notes by military interrogators of an American-born Taliban prisoner. Interestingly, all these things are done by citing ‘national security’, a favourite phrase among the dictators now being ‘rehabilitated’ by Bush.

The 18th-century US Alien Tort Claims Act, under which the lawsuit against Exxon is taken, allows jurisdiction over acts committed outside the US. The US government has never before urged the dismissal of a case filed under the Act, which permits foreigners to sue in the federal court for human-rights violations against defendants in the United States. It now appears that Indonesia is a ‘special case’ because of ‘national security’.

The latest move comes just a few days after US secretary of state Colin Powell’s tour of six southeast Asian countries, with Jakarta at the top of his agenda, to sign up allies desperate to join Washington’s ‘anti-terror’ bandwagon. Powell got more than he bargained for, with every government in the region scrambling to show Uncle Sam its worth. Singapore and the Philippines, the staunchest of them, have reaffirmed their commitment; Malaysia, eager to deflect attention from unsettled domestic problems at home, has confirmed its undivided loyalty; Thailand has now formally joined up. Indonesia, whose loyalty Washington suspected earlier, is now at the forefront of the US’s stooges in the region.

Washington had earlier pledged to normalise relations with the Indonesian army (TNI), handing out a contribution of US$50 million to train the TNI, known worldwide for its atrocities both during and since the Suharto era. The US severed military ties with Jakarta after atrocities in Christian-majority East Timor in 1999. In Aceh, a conservative estimate puts the number of civilians killed at 12,000; Jakarta has not convicted a single person responsible for the numerous massacres there. To expect a similar look of outrage in Washington, however, is simplicity itself, as in Aceh it is Muslims who are at the receiving end.

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