Monday, January 19, 2015

One Last Chance for Terror Victims

During the 1990s, the Nigerian government brutally repressed residents of the Ogoni Niger River Delta who were protesting against the Royal Dutch Shell oil company's efforts to drill for oil in the region.

The details of who did what on whose orders in that far away place and time may now determine whether victims of Colombian paramilitaries receive compensation from the Chiquita banana company in United States courts.

Victims of the Nigerian repression sued Shell, an Anglo-Dutch multinational, in U.S. courts, using a 1789 statue known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. The victims accused Shell of being behind the Nigerian government repression. But a U.S. court ruled that the case did not fall under U.S. jurisdiction because the events had occurred outside of the U.S. and the defendant was also a foreign company.

Relatives cry at the funeral of victims of a 1998 paramilitary
massacre in the oil town of Barranabermeja.
The ruling was important, because it limited the jurisdiction of the Tort Claims Act by creating a
presumption that the statute did not apply extraterritorially.

The ruling dealt a blow to Colombian victims of illegal armed groups who claim that U.S. companies, including Coca Cola, Drummond Coal Co. and Chiquita banana, promoted and financed rights violations and should compensate victims in Colombia.

So far, in part because of the ruling in the Nigerian case, the Colombian plaintiffs have lost. However, the strongest of those cases, against Chiquita banana, is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paramilitary fighters pose for a photographer.
In the Chiquita case, the wrong seems almost undeniable. The company has admitted that between 1997 and 2004 it handed over $1.7 million to outlawed Colombian paramilitary groups, labeled terrorists by the U.S. and Colombian governments. (Previously, it had made payments to leftist guerrillas while they controlled the region around its banana plantations.) Chiquita paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government, but nothing to the victims in Colombia. Chiquita also proceeded to sell its Colombian plantations. While Chiquita was paying off the paramilitaries, those groups murdered and robbed peasants and drove them off of their lands.

The paramilitaries' victims allege that Chiquita bears responsibility for the crimes committed by the illegal groups it helped finance. Chiquita disagrees. As a Chiquita spokesman told journalists: 'Chiquita has great sympathy for the Colombians who suffered at the hands of these Colombian armed groups, but the responsibility for the violent crimes committed in that country belongs to the perpetrators, not to the innocent people and companies they extorted.'

Chiquita no longer has banana farms in Colombia,
according to this image from its website.
Chiquita argues that it had no choice but to pay off the illegal groups in order to protect its employees from kidnapping and murder. But of course Chiquita did have a choice: to leave Colombia, as it ultimately did. Those suing Chiquita allege that the company paid off the paramilitaries in return for benefits such as repressing union activists.

Not all recent rulings in Alien Tort Act cases have gone against plaintiffs. In one, a district court ruled that Ugandan member of a sexual minority group could sue a U.S. citizen who had allegedly encouraged Ugandan officials to persecute sexual minorities in that nation. But that case may be different because, among other reasons, the defendant is a person, not a corporation. Another key issue may be whether any decisions to support abuses were made in the U.S. or overseas.

The victims' chances in U.S. courts appear slim. But they have few other options for compensation. Since Chiquita sold its Colombian plantations, there are no assets they can sue for here, where the atrocities were committed.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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