Saturday, January 24, 2004

I was poking around the web, looking for something to blog about.  Thinking of doing a follow-up on my post from yesterday, I went back to the Christian Science Monitor site.  There, I ran across a link to a story in Channel News Asia, about a US firm: Unocal (Union Oil of California).  Given the significance of this matter, I was a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of it before.  Also, it struck me as odd that I had to go to an Asian website to learn of it; it's almost as though mainstream news outlets in the US don't want to offend oil companies. (If you search for "Unocal" at LA Times, you get no hits.) 

Final arguments begin in groundbreaking rights case against Unocal
Posted: 22 January 2004 0738 hrs

LOS ANGELES : A US judge heard closing arguments in a trial in which US oil giant Unocal is accused of human rights abuses during the building of a disputed gas pipeline in Myanmar.

The groundbreaking case, brought by 15 Myanmar villagers, marks the first time that an American firm has been tried in the United States for alleged rights abuses and is being closely watched by legal pundits.

If the suit is successful, damages of up to one billion dollars could be awarded in the case.

The villagers claim in their seven-year-old lawsuit that Unocal turned a blind eye as junta troops murdered, raped and enslaved villagers and forced them to work on the 1.2-billion-dollar pipeline in the 1990s.

At issue in this first phase of the complex two-part trial, the phase that is now drawing to an end, is whether Unocal can be held liable for the conduct of its subsidiaries which invested in the pipeline.

A lawyer for the villagers claimed Wednesday that the California-based oil titan set up "corporate shells" to avoid liability for the enslavement of villagers by Myanmar's military junta when the pipeline was built.

"Unocal made all the decisions," lawyer Terry Collingsworth said. "It was a business choice. It's not illegal to have done that, but the tradeoff is if you go the corporate-shell route, you don't get limited liability."

"The subsidiaries had nothing to do with construction of the pipeline. They were simply paper conduits," he said. "They are tax shelters, they are cash pass-throughs, but they were not responsible for the pipeline."

But Unocal, which did not directly operate the field that was owned by the Myanmar government, strongly denies any involvement in abuses.

Of course, I do not want to post a one-sided article, so I went to the Unocal website. It is always good to get the other side of the story.  I was heartened to see that they take human rights very seriously.  So much so, that they have posted a copy of their Code of Conduct on their corporate intranet.  And, not content to rest on their laurels, they also issued a Statement of Guiding Principles.  (The Guiding Principles do not appear to have a direct link; they pop up when you activate a bit of javascript, so I can't insert a hyperlink here.)  As mentioned on their website,

In 2000, we updated and reissued our Code of Conduct to all employees. The Code of Conduct reaffirms Unocal's commitment to the ethical principles, laws and regulations that must guide all of our business decisions. Although laws and regulations vary from country to country, our Code of Conduct -- just like our Guiding Principles -- applies everywhere we do business. If we cannot do business within the requirements of our Code of Conduct, then we will not be involved in that operation. Compliance with the Code of Conduct is a condition of employment at Unocal. Every employee is responsible for understanding and following the code.

The Code of Conduct, which is posted on Unocal's intranet, contains new sections on e-mail and Internet usage...

After seeing that they have been accused of turning "a blind eye as junta troops murdered, raped and enslaved villagers and forced them to work on the 1.2-billion-dollar pipeline," I was relieved greatly to see that they now have a policy on e-mail and Internet usage.  Curiously, on another page, entitled Corporate Responsibility, they have the following section:

Corporate Responsibility at Unocal
2000-2001 Report
1999 Report
1996-97 HES Report
1995 HES Report
1994 Environmental Report to Stockholders (pdf format)

It appears that they stopped reporting on corporate responsibility in the year 2001.  I suppose with Mr. Bush in the White House, maybe corporate responsibility is not so important anymore.  Seriously, though, I do have to give them credit for withdrawing from the Afghan pipeline consortium.  They withdrew from this project in 1998, because of concerns about the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.  This article from World Press Review Online, outlines the events leading up to the decision. 

Another thing I learned is that the World Press Review Online has a nice page that provides links to newspapers from around the world, all in English.   Previously, I had been using Yahoo's list of news websites.  The World Press Review page is easier to use, since you don't have to wade through a zillion links, many of which take you to sites that are not in English.  Also, the WPR gives you a one-line description of the site's political bias.  For example, they tell you if the site is government-cotrolled.  This is a citation for a news outlet in Cambodia:

Koh Santepheap
(independent, pro-government), Phnom Penh

Today you got, not a cogent essay, but some miscellaneous information that I hope is useful.  I think we all still are in the process of learning to make good use of the Internet.  Being able to find news with varied international perspectives is a valuable skill.