An Important Human Rights Tool
The New York Times
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 foreign policy.
International human 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.
As international 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.