Unocal Corp was to go on trial yesterday in two civil lawsuits accusing the oil giant of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses committed against Myanmar villagers who were enslaved to build its Yadana natural gas pipeline between the Andaman Sea and Thailand.
In the first phase of the two-part trial, lawyers for the 15 villagers from the South Asian country must convince a Los Angeles judge to allow them to sue the company for reparations, rather than the subsidiaries that invested in the pipeline. Unocal is a global diversified energy corporation based in El Segundo, California.
If Superior Court Judge Victoria Chaney rules that the subsidiaries acted as Unocal's "alter ego" in the pipeline project, a jury will hear the villagers' claims that they or family members were beaten, raped, tortured and murdered by soldiers who guarded the pipeline during construction.
"The methods of the Burmese military were well known and Unocal knew when it joined the project that these abuses were certain to be committed for its benefit," said Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which represents some of the plaintiffs.
Unocal's attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, has argued that California's "alter ego doctrine" bars plaintiffs from trying to tap a parent corporation's deep pockets when a subsidiary facing potential liability losses has its own assets.
Petrocelli also attacked the case's validity after unearthing a 1994 newspaper interview with one of the plaintiffs in which she contradicted her later claims that soldiers had kicked her baby into a cooking fire while trying to conscript her husband to work on the pipeline.
Unocal operates the US$1.2 billion pipeline in partnership with Thailand's PTT Exploration & Production; state-owned oil company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise; and France's Total. The 409km pipeline was comple-ted in early 1998.