by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
human rights attorneys Friday filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum and its security contractor, AirScan Inc. for their role in the bombing that killed 18 civilians, including six children, in a Colombian village in December 1998.
The lawsuit, which coincided with the company's annual stockholders' meeting in southern California, is being brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, an 18th century law against piracy that has been used successfully by people claiming to have suffered serious rights abuses abroad to sue those responsible in U.S. courts.
In recent years, a number of suits have been brought against U.S. oil and gas companies operating abroad by individuals whose rights were violated by local army or security forces hired and used by the companies to protect their installations.
One of the plaintiffs in the new case against Occidental, Luis Alberto Galvis Mujica, whose mother, sister and cousin perished in the attack, was expected to directly question Occidental's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ray Irani and its board of directors about the incident during Friday's meeting.
The suit revolves around Occidental's operations in Colombia, particularly its 750-kilometer Cano Limon oil pipeline, which runs from the Amazonian region of Colombia near the Venezuelan border to the Caribbean.
The pipeline has for years been a target for sabotage by left-wing guerrillas, so much so that the administration of President George W. Bush persuaded Congress last year to provide $131 million in military aid to train and equip a special Colombian Army battalion to protect it. Bush has asked Congress for another $110 million for next year.
The incident took place Dec. 13, 1998 over the village of Santo Domingo, about 50 kms from the pipeline, during a battle between leftist rebels hiding in a nearby jungle and Colombian army troops. During the firing, a Colombian Air Combat helicopter dropped a U.S.-made cluster bomb on the town, according to the Colombian inspector general's office, which concluded that the pilots should have known that they would hit civilians rather than rebels.
The 'Los Angeles Times' reported last year that a U.S. Customs plane that was tracking a suspected drug flight was involved in initial operations that led to the bombing the next day.
Members of the helicopter crew later testified in Colombia that the operation was planned at Occidental's regional headquarters, where the helicopter was also fuelled. They said they received targeting information from U.S. citizens who were flying a surveillance plane belonging to Florida-based AirScan, which was patrolling the area under contract with the Colombian Air Force, reported the Times.
Two of the four helicopter crewmembers were sanctioned in an administrative proceeding late last year in one of the few Colombian government efforts to punish serious rights abuses by soldiers, but the decision is on appeal.
Last January, the U.S. State Department suspended all funding to Colombia's air force unit for impeding the investigation of the case. Under U.S. law, the administration is obliged to suspend military aid to any unit found to have committed serious rights violations or to have failed to co-operate with investigations into abuses.
AirScan has denied any involvement in the incident.
In a statement released Friday, Occidental also denied responsibility. "While we have not had an opportunity to study the complaint," it said, "we believe that any suggestion that Occidental Petroleum was responsible in any way for the Santo Domingo tragedy resulting from military action involving Colombian armed forces and elements of the terrorist group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), is completely false. Occidental has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia's armed forces," it said.
A company spokesman, Lawrence Meriage, said it will "vigorously contest" any allegation that it was involved. "In fact," he noted, "Occidental and its employees have been routinely victimized by armed terrorist groups that were operating, and continue to operate, in the vicinity of Santo Domingo and throughout the state of Arauca."
In December, he said, rebels killed four employees of an Occidental contractor and wounded 15 others when they detonated a bomb that destroyed a commuter bus from the Cano Limon oil field.
The suit against Occidental is being brought by the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and the Center for Human Rights at Northwestern University School of Law.
The fact that it is being brought in a federal court in California gives the plaintiffs an important advantage.
Last September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals -- whose jurisdiction covers California and the rest of the U.S. West Coast -- ruled in a similar case that Unocal, another California-based oil giant, could be sued for forced labour, rape and murder allegedly committed by Burmese soldiers guarding a major gas pipeline project.
The ruling overturned a 2000 decision by a federal judge that plaintiffs would have to provide evidence that Unocal either participated directly in the abuses or exerted direct control over the army when the abuses occurred in order for the case, which was also brought under Alien Tort Claims Act, to proceed to trial.
The appeals court said that was too high a standard to establish responsibility, and that it was sufficient to show that the corporation knew about and benefited directly from the military's conduct. The trial court in the Unocal case will be bound by the appeals court's ruling unless and until that judgment is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is quite possible that the State Department may intervene on behalf of Occidental to persuade the judge to dismiss or suspend the case on the grounds that permitting it to proceed could endanger key U.S. national-security interests.
The State Department did precisely that last August when it intervened in another case against ExxonMobil, which was being sued by plaintiffs from Aceh province in Indonesia, where Indonesian Army troops have been accused by international rights groups of terrorizing local communities for years.
While cases based on the Alien Tort Claims Act have won big judgments against specific individuals, including about a dozen foreign heads of state and senior military officers, no case against a U.S. corporation has yet been fully tried.
One still pending case also involves Colombia. In 2001, Colombian plaintiffs sued Coca-Cola for the killings and intimidation by paramilitary units of union leaders at several of Coke's bottling plants around the country.
Occidental also has a controversial history in Colombia apart from its Cano Limon pipeline. For many years, it tried to drill for oil on the sacred lands of the U'wa Indians, but finally abandoned a direct role in that effort last year in the face of criticism by environmental and human rights organizations and local resistance.
April 29, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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