A ground-breaking settlement thought to be worth millions of dollars has been reached in the long-running human-rights case brought by Burmese villagers against the energy giant Unocal, it emerged on Tuesday.
A dozen villagers sued the company in the California courts, claiming that the building of Unocal's pipeline in the country had led to deaths, rape and the disruption of their way of life. The settlement may have major ramifications for other multinationals.
In a joint announcement yesterday, Unocal and the human rights group EarthRights International announced they had reached a settlement in principle in connection with the Yadana gas pipeline project.
No mention was made of the sums of money involved but it is certain to run to millions of dollars. Unocal's legal costs alone are estimated to be at least US$25 million.
"Although the terms are confidential, the settlement in principle will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region," the statement said.
"These initiatives will provide substantial assistance to people who may have suffered hardships in the region. Unocal reaffirms its principle that the company respects human rights in all of its activities and commits to enhance its educational programs to further this principle. Plaintiffs and their representatives reaffirm their commitment to protecting human rights," it said.
EarthRights International said it was "thrilled" and "ecstatic."
The action arose after 12 Burmese brought the suit in California claiming that their country's military government had used forced labor and its soldiers had employed murder and rape to clear the way for Unocal's pipeline.
The action was brought against Unocal in 1996 on the grounds that it benefited from the Burmese government's activity even if it did not endorse it.
The story began in the 1990s when the Burmese regime used indentured labor to clear a path for the Yadana project -- a pipeline for Unocal and Total -- which was the biggest foreign operation under way in Burma. According to the lawsuit, the army used brutal tactics to coerce the villagers into working on the project.
The plaintiffs, who were known only as John or Jane Doe or Roe to keep their identity from the Burmese authorities, claimed that the army "engaged in a pattern of systematic human rights abuses and environmental degradation ... to fulfil its contractual responsibilities to Unocal and Total."
The suit claimed that "abuses such as extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and extortion by pipeline security forces have dramatically increased since the Yadana project was initiated."