Deadly Drilling in Aceh
by Robert Weissman
Multinational Monitor, July / August 2001
ExxonMobil is culpable for some of the mass atrocities committed
by the Indonesian military in Aceh Province, in North Sumatra,
a June lawsuit filed in the United States alleges.
Filed by the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights
Fund on behalf of 11 John and Jane Does, the suit charges that
Mobil Oil (now merged with Exxon) contracted with the Indonesian
military to provide security for its Arun natural gas project,
and controlled and directed the units assigned to it.
The Indonesian military has engaged in a bloody conflict with
separatist forces in Aceh for more than a decade. Human rights
groups have long condemned its operations. Amnesty International
reports that hundreds of civilians in Aceh were extrajudicially
killed in 2000. "Torture and ill-treatment were routine in
both police and military custody and some people died as a result
of torture," Amnesty states in its most recent annual report.
"A significant proportion of the victims were ordinary civilians,
including women, children, humanitarian workers, human rights
defenders and political activists."
The International Labor Rights Fund suit charges ExxonMobil
with complicity in these abuses, arguing that the company directed
the forces to a considerable extent, and that the military used
facilities and resources provided by ExxonMobil and its Indonesian
partner PT Arun (also a defendant in the case ) in the commission
of wide-scale human rights violations.
"The Mobil Companies and Defendant PT Arun knew or should
have known that their logistical and material support was being
used to effectuate the Indonesian military's commission of the
human rights atrocities," the suit charges, and ExxonMobil
and PT Arun are therefore liable for the human rights abuses inflicted
on the plaintiffs by the Indonesian military.
The case is filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which gives
standing to torture victims to sue in U.S. courts.
In a statement issued in response to the suit, Exxon Mobil
said that it is "disturbed by any suggestions that ExxonMobil
or its affiliate companies are in any way involved with alleged
human rights abuses by security in Aceh. ExxonMobil condemns the
violation of human rights in any form and categorically denies
these allegations. We believe a lawsuit recently filed by the
International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) containing these allegations
is without merit and designed to bring publicity to their organization."
MOBILIZING THE MILITARY
Mobil discovered the natural gas field around Arun in the
early 1970s. It contracted with the Indonesian government to gain
exclusive rights to the field, in a deal that the ILRF says involved
the transfer of shares in Mobil Oil Indonesia to Indonesian dictator
Suharto's government and/or his family. The Arun Project is one
of the largest natural gas projects in the world.
The natural gas field happens to be located in Aceh, where
an armed resistance organized under the banner of the Free Aceh
Movement has long been seeking independence. From 1989 to 1998,
the Indonesian government designated Aceh as a Military Operation
Area, with thousands of troops assigned to defeat the armed independence
force. Human rights organizations report that more than 1,000
people were killed during the period of military rule. After longtime
Indonesian dictator Suharto fell from power in 1998, the new president,
Abdurrahman Wahid offered to permit at the people of Aceh to vote
on independence in a referendum, but then subsequently withdrew
the offer. Violence in Aceh soon escalated to its present levels.
The lawsuit charges that ExxonMobil is complicit in the long-running
human rights abuses. "The extraction and liquefication activities
could not have been performed without a heavy military presence
by the Indonesian military because of the involvement with and
identification with the project by the Suharto regime," the
suit charges. As part of the deal in which Mobil gains rights
to the Arun field, Suharto agreed to dedicate a unit of the military,
known by its Indonesian acronym TNI, to provide security to the
natural gas project, the suit claims. "At least one unit
of the TNI, No. 113, was assigned for the sole and specific purpose
of providing such 'security' for the Arun Project."
The lawsuit charges that Mobil and PT Arun always "had
the ability to control and direct, and have indeed controlled
and directed, the activities of the TNI units assigned to protect
Defendants' interests in the Arun Project. Such control and direction
includes conditioning payment on the provision of specific security
services, making decisions about where to place bases, strategic
mission planning, and making decisions about specific deployment
Mobil worsened the situation by providing logistical and material
support to the TNI, the suit claims. It alleges Mobil provided
buildings and barracks near the company's operations which were
used by the Indonesian Kopassus special forces "to interrogate,
torture and murder Achenese civilians suspected of engaging in
separatist activities," and provided heavy equipment used
by the military to dig mass graves.
The unnamed plaintiffs in the case all allege to have been
severely injured or had family members killed by the military
forces in TNI Unit 113. They recount gruesome incidents of torture
and mistreatment. The suit alleges that one of the John Does was
shot in three places in his leg while riding a motorcycle to a
refugee camp for people displaced by the ExxonMobil security forces.
Soldiers took him to a military camp, letting him bleed and torturing
him for hours, breaking his kneecap, smashing his skull and burning
him with cigarettes. After his wounds were eventually treated,
the suit claims, TNI kept him in custody for a month, torturing
him regularly. He was finally released only after a human rights
group bribed government officials.
The suit alleges that ExxonMobil is culpable for these abuses,
and many others alleged, via a variety of legal theories. At root,
these theories emphasize that ExxonMobil "pay[s] a monthly
or annual fee for security services provided by specific units
of the TNI," and that these units are therefore agents of
the company, with the company liable for the actions of its agents.
ExxonMobil disdains the notion that it is in any way responsible
for the violence and human rights abuses in Aceh. "We are
deeply troubled and highly concerned about the violence in North
Aceh," ExxonMobil said in its statement. "We have a
very long history in Indonesia and we have always been sensitive
to the needs of local residents, our employees and the government.
The unrest in this area seriously impacts the safety and well
being of our workers, their families and our contractors, as well
as those who live in the area."
ExxonMobil points out that it suspended operations in Aceh
because of violence in March 2001, though the suit argues that
the suspension came because the company wanted TNI to increase
the number of troops in the area, not ratchet down the violence.
"We do not underestimate the severe economic and political
disruptions that Indonesia is experiencing," ExxonMobil says.
"It is our steadfast hope that the political and economic
turmoil in Aceh will be peacefully resolved, so that Indonesia
might use its rich base of natural and human resources for the
benefit of its people and to maintain its leadership position
in the Asia Pacific region." The company says it is a positive
force in the region, employing more than 2,000 Acehenese, providing
health services to local villagers, supporting schools, and building
water systems, roads, bridges and other community infrastructure