Why are villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia–or their lawyers–worrying about contributions from Exxon Mobil to George W. Bush and the Republicans?
A year ago, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against the energy behemoth, claiming the Mobil half of the conglomerate in the 1990s paid and supported Indonesian military troops that committed human rights abuses in the war-torn province. Representing eleven unnamed residents of Aceh who say they or their husbands were brutalized by troops underwritten by Exxon Mobil, the ILRF maintained that under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victims Protection Act, the oil company and its Indonesian subsidiary could be held liable for the murder, torture, sexual crimes, and kidnapping conducted by these soldiers. As part of a joint venture with Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company, Exxon Mobil–which owns 35 percent of this enterprise–operates a major natural gas facility in this province in northern Sumatra, where Acehnese separatists have been fighting Indonesian troops for decades. In the 1990s, Indonesian troops in the area committed extensive abuses, according to human rights organizations. Over 1000 people were killed, tortured or disappeared, reports Human Rights Watch, which noted, “Thousands of Acehnese were detained without charge, often for years at a time, in military camps; many never returned.”
The ILRF suit says that, per an agreement with General Suharto, the former strongman-leader of Indonesia, Mobil paid the Indonesian military for providing security for its facilities there. These troops, the ILRF contends, picked up one of the plaintiffs, held him at a structure at a Mobil plant, and for three months tortured him. Before they released him, the soldiers showed him a large pile of human heads. Another plaintiff claims he, too, was tortured by Indonesian soldiers at a building inside the company’s compound. The other plaintiffs offer similar accounts of abuse.
Exxon Mobil argues it has not “in any way directly caused, intended, conspired to commit, or participated in any of the” acts of brutality alleged and that there is “no basis” under US law for this lawsuit. When the suit was initiated, the president of Pertamina denied the joint venture had financed troops in Indonesia. He did concede it provided health, housing and transportation facilities for the military. But in 2000, Kontras, an Indonesian human rights group, said it had conducted an investigation that determined at least 17 military and police stations in Aceh with a personnel total of 1000 were subsidized by Exxon Mobil. Last August, the Asian edition of Time published an article noting that Exxon Mobil does pay the soldiers that protect its sites and that townspeople “literally lineup to tell stories of abuse and murders committed by the troops they call Exxon’s Army.” (In 1998, several Indonesian human rights groups accused Mobil of being “responsible for human rights abuses” committed by the military and maintained it provided logistical support to the army, including earth-moving equipment used to dig mass graves. That year, Business Week reported that the tales told by Acehnese who survived military abuse “raise questions about what Mobil knew and when.”)