At a time when the Indonesian government is dragging its feet over its promise to make ‘peace’ in Aceh, without even punishing the perpetrators of decades-long violence against civilians, an international labour-group has taken the unprecedented step of further exposing a less-known incident involving an American multinational corporation.
On June 22 the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), representing 11 Acehnese villagers, filed a lawsuit in Washington against ExxonMobil (which often trades under the name Esso), accusing the giant company of actively abetting human-rights abuses in northern Sumatra. The suit is being taken under the US Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows jurisdiction over acts committed outside the US.
ILRF says that Exxon hired local army units to protect its gas-fields in Aceh despite knowing that army units were brutal in their fight against dissidents. Exxon is also accused of complicity in the murder, torture and sexual abuse of local people, and of helping the Indonesian military to dig mass-graves and build torture-centres. ILRF lawyer Terry Collingsworth says that Exxon knew about the security forces’ reputation of brutality towards ethnic minorities. “This is the first time we actually have evidence that the oil company has supported the instrumentality for the human rights violations,” he said.
An Exxon statement has said that the company is “deeply troubled” by the violence in North Aceh and is concerned for the safety of its staff and subcontractors. “Our company rejects and categorically denies any suggestion or implication that it or its affiliate companies were in any way involved with alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Aceh,” it added. The shocking revelation, however, is not new. In October 1998, 17 Indonesian human-rights organisations accused ExxonMobil of providing logistic support to the Indonesian army, including earth-moving equipment that was used to dig mass-graves.
Local people’s resentment over the oil-company’s operations has been growing since an investigative report in 1998 by Business Week revealed that mass-graves had been discovered near Exxon’s drilling site. Hundreds of bodies of people who had been tortured and killed by the army were exhumed, providing new information about the disappearance of dissidents near the site. One farmer, who was paid US$4 a night by the army to prevent anyone from siphoning fuel from its tank, told Business Week that he saw soldiers execute between 60 and 70 blindfolded men at a time with M-16 rifles, letting their dead bodies tumble into a mass-grave. In addition, the oil company is also accused of providing facilities for Post 13, the Indonesian version of the Khiam camp run by Israel during its occupation of southern Lebanon. Post 13 was notorious for its use of torture in the interrogation of Acehnese dissidents.
In May last year several armed men occupied Exxon’s gas-field and threatened to blow it up. However, members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who had earlier signed a ‘ceasefire’ with Jakarta, freed the employees despite knowing about the locals’ well-founded grievances against the company. This was because the incident could have been staged by Jakarta in its attempt to ruin the ceasefire as a pretext to deploy more troops in the province.
Oil-rich Aceh is the source of one third of Indonesia’s total oil and gas exports. American multinationals have long worked hand in glove with the Suharto regime to exploit the region’s natural reserves. The Asia-Pacific region contributes about 13 percent of Exxon’s worldwide oil and gas production. In Indonesia it produces gas which is then processed by the state-owned firm Pertamina, which was wrecked by a series of corruption scandals during the Suharto era.
The lawsuit, if successful, will be the first such lawsuit involving western multinationals in this region, and could frighten other multinational companies in other parts of the world, especially Africa and South America. ILRF’s action is a giant step in bringing to justice those behind the atrocities in Aceh. However, it is a far cry from the end of the frequent violence that the Acehnese people have to live with even today.