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Human Rights Watch letter to State Department Legal Advisor Taft

June 18, 2002

The Honorable William Howard Taft IV
Office of the Legal Advisor
U.S. Department of State 2201 C St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520

Dear Mr. Taft:

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We are writing regarding the May 10, 2002 request of Judge Louis Oberdorfer in Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, Case No. O1-CV-1357 LFO for advice from the State Department. Judge Oberdorfer's letter asks "out of an abundance of caution, in the tense times in which we are living…whether the Department of State has an opinion (non-binding) as to whether adjudication of this case at this time would impact adversely on interests of the United States" and seeks specifics about "the nature and significance of that impact."

Human Rights Watch is not a party to the lawsuit and takes no position on claims regarding Exxon Mobil in Indonesia. We are, however, deeply concerned that the State Department maintain its commitment to promoting corporate responsibility with regard to human rights and urge you to take that commitment into full account when responding to the court's request.

According to Judge Oberdorfer's request, the plaintiffs in this case allege that "Exxon Mobil Corporation and various of its subsidiaries and affiliates ('Exxon') are legally responsible for human rights violations suffered by plaintiffs at the hands of an Indonesian Army unit engaged by Exxon to provide security for its Arun Project in Aceh, Indonesia." In its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the State Department for years has reported on serious and widespread abuses by Indonesian security forces in Aceh. Consistent with the central role that promoting human rights has long played in U.S. foreign policy, we believe that judicial inquiries into recognized abuses in Aceh, and whether Exxon Mobil was complicit in them, are in no way inconsistent with U.S. policy interests.

In this regard, we urge you in particular to take note of the "Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights" program which began in 2000 and has been adopted by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The program was developed by the State Department in conjunction with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, multinational oil and mining companies, and human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch. According to the State Department, the program is designed to "guide Companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations within an operating framework that ensures respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Should the State Department oppose the case before Judge Oberdorfer, that would tend to insulate from legal scrutiny Exxon Mobil's alleged human-rights-related activities in Indonesia and thus undermine the impact and credibility of the Voluntary Principles program.

We hope that the State Department will consider these factors in responding to Judge Oberdorfer's request.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

cc: The Honorable Colin L. Powell
U.S. Secretary of State

The Honorable Lorne W. Craner
Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor