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Business targeted for rights abuse

Case against Unocal tests whether big global firms can be sued for aiding regimes, such as Burma, labeled as human-rights violators.

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To make way for a natural gas pipeline, the Burmese military displaced whole villages a decade ago, forced residents to work against their will, and allegedly raped or murdered some who refused.

Those are the charges laid by some human rights groups. But instead of targeting Burma's [Myanmar's] government, the victims of those alleged abuses turned to a federal court in California for relief. They sued one of Burma's corporate partners, the US oil company Unocal, using a controversial 1798 statute that may have originally been designed to deal with pirates.

The case has potentially far-reaching implications. To human rights activists, it could set a precedent for efforts to crack down indirectly on some of the world's worst regimes. But business groups warn it could damage the engine of the world economy by making corporate forays into the developing world riskier. And the Bush administration is worried that US courts may wind up interfering with its foreign policy as they deal with growing numbers of international plaintiffs ranging from prisoners of war to torture victims.

The case is currently stalled behind the marbled-covered walls of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals here in San Francisco, which must decide the pivotal question whether the lawsuit against Unocal can go to trial. At the center of the controversy is the 205-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and whether it can be used to hold multinational corporations liable for business partners' human rights abuses.

Dusting off an old statute

The statute is so old that legal experts aren't sure about its original purpose. The act gives federal courts broad jurisdiction over violation of "the law of nations or a treaty of the US." No legislative history survives so the best guess is that it was originally intended to handle suits against pirates and foreign diplomats.

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