A group of Indonesian villagers who sued oil and gas giant ExxonMobil for alleged human rights abuses have finally settled their case, 22 years after it was filed by a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, Terrence Collingsworth.
“Resolving the case on favorable terms after over 22 years of litigation is amazing for the plaintiffs, who now have obtained justice, and for me and the other lawyers because we did not give up,” Collingsworth told The Diplomat following news of the settlement.
The case stemmed from accusations by 11 villagers from Indonesia’s Aceh Province who alleged that they and their family members were tortured, sexually assaulted, raped, and beaten in and around the ExxonMobil Oil and Gas Plant in the town of Lhoksukon during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
They alleged that they were abused by security guards hired by the U.S. company from the ranks of the Indonesian army to guard the plant after it had been attacked by separatists on a number of occasions over the years, leaving one American staffer dead.
The case had languished in the U.S. courts since 2001, when Collingsworth filed it with the District Court for the District of Columbia after a trip to Aceh to meet with the plaintiffs in person. The slow progress of the litigation was due to a confluence of factors, including repeated legal challenges by ExxonMobil and a chronic backlog of cases in the U.S. court system.
While the details of the settlement are confidential, one of the plaintiffs, who are all listed as John and Jane Does in court documents to protect their identities, told The Diplomat that he was pleased that the legal fight was over.
“We are old men and women now and are all tired. Instead of dying without ever receiving justice, we are happy that we have managed to settle this peacefully,” he said.
The man added that while the plaintiffs had not had their day in court, with the civil trial scheduled to start on May 24 this year, and had therefore not had the chance to give evidence in front of a jury, he felt a sense of peace now that the settlement had been reached.
For its part, ExxonMobil has always denied that it knew of any human rights violations and argued that it could not be held legally responsible for any abuses, if indeed they did occur, as it did not order or authorize them.
“It should be noted that while there were no allegations that any employee directly harmed any of the plaintiffs, the settlement brings closure for all parties,” it said in a statement following the settlement.
“We express our deepest sympathy to the families and the people who were involved.”
ExxonMobil, which came about as a result of a merger between Mobil Oil Indonesia and U.S. company Exxon, apparently paid members of the Indonesian military $500,000 per month to guard its oil and gas plant in Lhoksukon at the height of Aceh’s civil war between local separatists and the Indonesian Army, according to court documents.
The 11 plaintiffs alleged that, while the conflict was still raging in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the security guards working for ExxonMobil conducted sweeping raids in local villages around the oil and gas plant, where they assaulted the local populace while apparently looking for suspected separatists.
The civil conflict, during which Acehnese separatists fought for autonomy from the rest of Indonesia, lasted for decades before a peace agreement was reached in 2005 – in part as a result of renewed calls for a resolution following a devastating tsunami of 2004 that killed over 200,000 people in the region.
One of the John Does who spoke to The Diplomat alleged that he had been kidnapped by security guards hired by ExxonMobil and tortured for days in an effort to get him to admit to being a separatist. He also alleged that he had been taken to a prison camp in Aceh and forced to touch a pile of severed heads, while ExxonMobil security guards threatened to add his head to the pile if he did not give them the names of anyone involved in separatist activity.
“Exxon said they wanted to find a solution and this is the best decision for all of us. I feel like justice has been served, but I won’t be happy until I receive the settlement money in my bank account,” he said.
Another of the John Does listed in the legal documents, who said he was kidnapped by security guards contracted to ExxonMobil and had the letters G-A-M – the acronym of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) – carved into his back, said that justice had been served as a result of the settlement.
“I am going to use the settlement money to open my own business,” he said, adding that his days as a local fisherman, scraping a living from the sea, were now over. “The most important thing is that my family is provided for now and in the future.”
At the same time, some told The Diplomat that, while this may be seen as a legal victory for the plaintiffs, it was disappointing that ExxonMobil settled before going to trial and was not held accountable in a court of law.
“After 22 long years, it’s good that the victims finally received some kind of compensation for their suffering and loss,” said Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University in Perth.
“However, in the end, it is also another case of corporations being able to buy themselves out of serious legal and public accountability for what was, in this instance, very serious charges.”
“I must concede some disappointment that we were not able to have a major public trial that would have educated the public more about corporate accountability, but our duty was to our clients first and they are very satisfied,” Collingsworth said of the settlement.
“I do not think that there is any question that Exxon was held accountable by resolving the case this way.”
As a result, Collingsworth said that the fight continues for his firm, International Rights Advocates, which also has cases involving other corporate giants such as Nestle, Cargill, and The Hershey Company.
“For International Rights Advocates, I hope the legacy of this case is that other companies that engage in human rights violations should try to avoid the enormous costs of lengthy litigation, and that they need to work with us at the outset to resolve any problems and develop effective mechanisms to identify and prevent human rights violations,” he said.
“I hope we have demonstrated to Exxon and other large multinationals that Martin Luther King Jr. was correct: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’.”