Following the spate of recent business scandals in the United States, President George W. Bush called for "a new ethic of personal responsibility in the business world." Yet the State Department has recommended dismissal of a lawsuit alleging corporate complicity in violent human rights abuse in Indonesia. Its actions suggest that the administration's concern with corporate responsibility ends at the U.S. borders.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington by 11 residents of Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia and site of a vicious war between separatist guerrillas and the Indonesian military. In the suit, the plaintiffs charge that they were raped, tortured or kidnapped - or their relatives murdered - by Indonesian soldiers paid to protect a big Exxon Mobil natural gas plant in the province.
On a visit to Aceh a year ago for Human Rights Watch, I heard first-hand about atrocities by both sides. Often in reprisal for abusive guerrilla attacks, Indonesian troops shot and beat civilians and torched villages. The issue in the lawsuit is whether Exxon Mobil is complicit in these abuses through alleged "logistical and material" support given to Indonesian troops protecting operations it runs in north Aceh. Exxon Mobil denies the allegations.
The suit was brought under various U.S. federal statutes including the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. This law has been interpreted to permit victims of serious human rights violations abroad to seek civil damages in U.S. courts against their alleged abusers who are found in the United States. Despite its ancient vintage, the first human rights case was brought under the law only in 1979. Suits against corporations began in the 1990s, mostly against oil and mining companies operating in conflict-ridden countries. The Exxon Mobil suit could be an important test case clarifying the human rights rules governing efforts to maintain the security of such operations.
At Exxon Mobil's suggestion, the judge in the case sought the nonbinding opinion of the State Department as to whether the suit would adversely affect American interests. The response, by the department's legal adviser, William Taft 4th, said that U.S. interests would be harmed and recommended the suit's dismissal.
The State Department justifies its position with a series of strained and contradictory arguments. On the one hand, it fears an Indonesia so powerful that it will retaliate against U.S. companies and cease cooperating in the war on terrorism. On the other hand, it portrays an Indonesian economy so fragile that it could be devastated should the lawsuit discourage foreign investment.
Clearly, both can't be true, and probably neither is. Indonesia cannot afford to turn its back on the world's largest economy. And the investment it needs should not be of the sort, as the suit alleges, that underwrites the separatist and communal violence plaguing the country.
The State Department presumes that the Indonesian government will see the suit as "interference in its internal affairs." To back this up, it submits a letter from the Indonesian ambassador in Washington taking exception to U.S. adjudication of "an allegation against an Indonesian government institution."
However, the suit is not brought against an Indonesian government institution but against Exxon Mobil for alleged complicity in serious human rights abuse. It is entirely appropriate for U.S. courts to uphold basic standards of conduct for U.S.-based corporations.
The administration's position speaks poorly for its vision of both corporate responsibility and the war on terrorism. Corporate responsibility is not simply a matter of transparent balance sheets. It is also a matter of how companies treat people.
Nor does it advance the war on terrorism for the U.S. government to turn a blind eye toward alleged security force violence against civilians. It is hypocritical and ineffective to accept such violence in the name of one's own cause while trying to deny it to others in pursuit of theirs. The Bush administration should support legal scrutiny of any allegation of violent abuse, not make exceptions when U.S. corporations are implicated.