ExxonMobil plays "terrorist" card in Aceh case

Down to Earth No 53-54  August 2002

The world's biggest oil company is fighting a human rights lawsuit by claiming that the case will upset US relations with Indonesia.

Exxon described Indonesia as "a place where al-Quaeda-trained fighters are residing" at an April hearing of International Labor Rights Fund's lawsuit against the company. The ILRF suit was filed last June on behalf of eleven unnamed Acehnese plaintiffs who had suffered gross violations of human rights at the hands of military guards at Exxon's gas operations in North Aceh.

The company has successfully lobbied the Washington district court judge hearing the case to ask for advice from the US State Department. The judge asked the State Department to provide an opinion - expected early August - on whether proceeding with the case would influence US-Indonesia relations. Exxon argues that the suit would have an influence because the judge "would be forced to judge the conduct of the Indonesian government, an ally with whom America's relationship has never been more important, in order to determine whether the allegations in this complaint are those of murder or legitimate warfare against fundamentalist insurgents trying to break a country apart by bombings and other terrorist activities."

These arguments are a deliberate use of the same kind of emotive language as is being used to justify the US's 'war on terrorism'. It is an attempt to divert attention from the real substance of the ILRF case which has nothing to do with international terrorism, but concerns human rights violations including rape, torture and the murder of unarmed civilians living near Exxon Mobil's operations (see DTE 50 for more on the case or read the full complaint on ILRF's website at www.laborrights.org/.)

In June sixteen members of Congress and 2 senators sent letters to the State Department warning that an intervention "would send precisely the wrong message: that the United States support the climate of impunity for human-rights abuses in Indonesia."

By claiming there are Al Quaeda-trained terrorists in Indonesia, Exxon is using an unrelated issue to avoid facing serious charges of human rights abuse. The Indonesian military also claims there are Al Quaeda elements in the country, to try to persuade the US to provide funding for anti-terrorist activities and military hardware. The military wants the US to lift its embargo on military assistance to Indonesia (the issue is currently being debated by Congress) and has denounced the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (GAM) as a 'terrorist organisation'.

Exxon's characterisation of the victims of torture, killings and rape as "fundamentalist insurgents" is again a deliberate attempt to cover up the fact that civilians, not armed guerrillas have suffered the most in the Aceh war. The Indonesian military's "sweepings" regularly involve burning down homes, rounding up the inhabitants of villages suspected of having GAM sympathies and then shooting them. Even if those people murdered had been associated with GAM, the label 'fundamentalist' does not bear close examination. GAM's opposition to Jakarta rule is not inspired by religious differences with Indonesia, but a combination of historical, political cultural and economic motivations. Jakarta's recent introduction of Syariah Law in Aceh - a measure aimed at courting favour with local people, has been criticised by civil society organisations as an unwanted imposition from Jakarta. Some Acehnese see it as an attempt by Jakarta to distract attention from political and human rights issues by creating an image of Acehnese as 'fundamentalists', and persuading the outside world not to support them (see Tapol Bulletin 166/167).

For the ordinary people of Aceh, the restoration of peace, a halt to military oppression and justice for past atrocities are of prime importance. But the establishment of a new military command in the territory, tough talk from Jakarta's generals on the need to eliminate separatists and plans to impose a state of emergency or martial law show that there is no change in Indonesia's basic approach. These measures are making a mockery of the Special Autonomy implemented since January this year, under which Aceh is supposed to have more say in how it runs its affairs (see DTE 51 for more details on the Autonomy package.)

Peace negotiations between GAM and the Jakarta government brokered by the Henri Dunant Center have resumed, but civil society organisations are still excluded. A civil society meeting organised to discuss progress on the peace negotiations was banned in May. Moreover, the agreements made by the negotiators appear to have no bearing on what happens on the ground. By the eraly months of this year, the average death toll had reached 20 per day, up from an average of 10 per day in 2001.


Shareholder action

ExxonMobil came under pressure from human rights and environmental organisations, including Amnesty International, to adopt a human rights policy at its annual general meeting in May. Amnesty and nine other organisations who hold shares in the company, signed a resolution demanding that Exxon come up with an objective human rights policy, that it halt drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, cease emissions of dangerous chemicals and put a stop to political donations. Exxon was the second biggest contributor to President Bush's election fund.

An Acehnese woman attending the meeting, Cut Zahara Hamzah, told shareholders how Indonesian troops enter villages on the pretext of searching for GAM guerrillas and "arrest, detain, torture and … disappear innocent villagers."

Exxon is increasingly seen as a pariah company both for its association with human rights abuse and its stance on environmental issues. In June the company tried to silence Greenpeace by taking court action in France over the group's use of Exxon's logo in the joint StopEsso boycott campaign (www.stopesso.com). (Esso is the trade name for Exxon's petrol as sold in Europe). The company is claiming 80,000 Euros for reputational damage and a further 80,000 Euros per day should Greenpeace continue to use the doctored logo.


Security zone

Back in Aceh, the company is relying on more troops and tighter security measures to keep operations running. Last year, the company's gas fields and the LNG processing plant ExxonMobil co-owns were forced to shut down for several months. A recent article in the New York Times described how more than 3,000* Indonesian troops now patrol the site "where the gas operations cut into fertile forest and sit alongside the simple plots of some of the world's poorest people". The report also described how executives sleep in shipping containers inside the plant, "having been forced to abandon their ranch-style homes a few miles away." In May, the kidnapping of two Exxon contract workers was reported, the second such incident in less than two months. State oil company Pertamina, Exxon's production sharing partner, said it would not pay ransom for the workers. According to Pertamina, the kidnappers claimed they were from GAM.

* Local sources put the figure higher.

(Source: The Nation 14/Jun/02; AFP 30/May/02; IRLF website www.laborrights.org/Tapol Bulletin Apr-May/02; Washington Times 4/Apr/02 via Joyo Indonesia News; The Guardian 25/Jun/02; New York Times 14/Jul/02; Dow Jones Newswires 6/May/02; Far Eastern Economic Review, 11/Jul/02)