By Lisa Girion
The list of corporations sued in American courts for their alleged involvement in human rights violations in foreign countries grew longer Thursday, when Occidental Petroleum Corp. was accused of aiding a deadly military assault on a Colombian village.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles by a man whose mother, sister and cousin were killed during the bombing raid five years ago. The suit claims that Occidental and a Florida-based security contractor provided the Colombian military with logistical support, aerial surveillance and target coordinates. In an effort to free government troops pinned down by guerrillas, a Colombian air force helicopter dropped a cluster bomb on Santo Domingo on Dec. 13, 1998. The incident left 17 villagers, including six children, dead, and remains a source of controversy in Colombia and among international human rights monitors.
Occidental, which works closely with the military to protect an oil pipeline that runs through an strife-torn section of the country, denied sharing any liability for the attack. "Any suggestion that Occidental Petroleum was responsible in any way for the Santo Domingo tragedy resulting from military action involving Colombian armed forces and elements of the terrorist group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, is completely false," the Westwood-based company said in a statement. "Occidental has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia's armed forces."
The suit is the latest of more than two dozen filed in U.S. courts against multinational corporations — including Ford Motor Co., Coca-Cola Co. and IBM Corp. — alleging complicity in human rights abuses abroad. None of the suits has gone to trial. But El Segundo-based Unocal Corp. may face a Los Angeles state court jury later this year over claims that soldiers guarding a gas
pipeline in Myanmar murdered, raped and forced villagers into labor. A U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel sent shock waves through the corporate world last year by ruling that Unocal could be held indirectly liable at trial for knowingly encouraging the soldiers' alleged conduct. A broader panel of the 9th Circuit is scheduled to hear arguments in June over whether Unocal should be held to an international or domestic liability standard, and courts elsewhere have recently waved similar suits forward.
The suits are filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a federal law that allows foreigners to bring suit in U.S. courts for violations of international law, even if the abuses were committed overseas. "These tort claim act suits have zeroed in with great detail on the facts and the rules of international law and exactly what's going on and why it's wrong," said Robert Benson, a Loyola Law School professor who tracks the litigation.
Luis Alberto Galvis Mujica, the plaintiff in the Occidental suit, said in an interview Thursday that he was on a family farm just outside Santo Domingo when he heard the explosion. "I saw the helicopter above the town. I said to my brother, 'Something has happened.' " Mujica said he ran toward town, but turned back when he was fired upon from a helicopter. He got into a car and tried another route, only to come under fire again. Eventually, he got to a nearby town, where he was able to call his wife and learn of his family's fate. His mother, who had been tending the family store at the front of their home, was killed by flying shrapnel. His 14-year-old cousin was killed after running outside and waving in an effort to alert the airmen that there were civilians below. His 25-year-old sister died en route to a hospital. His blind father survived wounds to both shoulders. Threats and the assassination of another witness to the bombing of Mujica's village forced him into exile. Now 30, he is studying English on scholarship in Pittsburgh and hopes to earn a criminal justice degree. He said he misses his wife, 2-year-old son and other relatives who remain in Colombia, and fears for their safety.
Civilian prosecutors in Colombia eventually accused the helicopter crew of aggravated homicide. The criminal case, which had been bogged down in a military tribunal, was recently transferred back to a civilian court, as human rights advocates had urged.
Evidence previously reported by The Times, including an aerial surveillance videotape, shows that the attack was planned at an Occidental complex 30 miles away and that AirScan Inc., a Florida-based firm that provides pipeline security, flew a surveillance mission and passed targeting information to military commanders. AirScan representatives could not be reached for comment, but the company has previously denied any involvement in the operation.
Paul Hoffman, a Venice-based lawyer representing Mujica, said the suit could help define what kind of responsibilities corporations have for civilians in areas where their operations are protected by government troops. "Even if it turns out that Occidental says, and is able to prove, there wasn't an intentional bombing of the hamlet, they still have to answer for the fact that cluster bombs were dropped with the participation of AirScan people in a situation where so many civilians were killed. And that's just a blatant violation of the laws of war, whether they intended to kill civilians or not," Hoffman said. "This 'laws of war' aspect of the case is crucial because there are going to be a lot of situations elsewhere where corporations are involved in areas of conflict. So the rules that this sets are going to be extremely important in protecting civilians in these areas."