ExxonMobil, Aceh and the Tsunami
Tuesday, January 4th, 2005
ExxonMobil has contributed $5 million to the Tsunami relief efforts. In Aceh, the company operates one of the largest gas fields in the world and they're being sued for gross human rights violations. We speak with a lawyer who has just returned from Indonesia where he was interviewing witnesses against ExxonMobil from Aceh.
Today, as the United Nations puts the confirmed death toll from the Asian Tsunami at more than 150,000, we are going to continue our special coverage of the devestation in the hardest hit area, the Aceh region of Indonesia where the death toll is expected soon to rise above 100,000. In a few moments we are going to be joined by two Acehnese activists who were out in front of the Indonesian Mission to the UN protesting yesterday against the Indonesian military regime. But first, we turn to a story that has gotten almost no attention and that is the story of the oil giant Exxon-Mobil, a corporation that has a massive investment in Aceh.
According to some estimates, ExxonMobil has extracted some $40 billion from its operations in Aceh, Indonesia. According to human rights groups, ExxonMobil has hired military units of the Indonesian national army to provide "security" for their gas extraction and liquification project in the region. Members of these military units regularly have perpetrated ongoing and severe human rights abuses against local villagers, including murder, rape, torture, destruction of property and other acts of terror. Human rights groups further charge that ExxonMobil has continued to finance the military and to provide company equipment and facilities that have been used by the Indonesian military to commit atrocities and cover them up through the use of mass graves.
For years, the Washington DC-based International Labor Rights Fund has fought a series of legal battles to hold ExxonMobil responsible for its record in Aceh. One of the group's lawyers was in Aceh interviewing witnesses just days before the Tsunami hit.
Derek Baxter, a lawyer for the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington, D.C.
Bama Athreya, Deputy Director of the International Labor Rights Fund in Washington, D.C.
AMY GOODMAN: We're joined by Bama Athreya, who is the Deputy Director of the International Labor Rights Fund, as well as Derek Baxter, who is a lawyer with that group. He has just returned from Indonesia, where he was speaking with people who are involved in the lawsuit. We want to welcome you both to Democracy Now!, and begin with Derek Baxter. Welcome.
DEREK BAXTER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us, Derek. I wanted to start off by saying that we did invite ExxonMobil on the program. They said at first they would participate in the program, if we were just talking about their contribution, ExxonMobil's contribution to the relief efforts. They're one of the largest corporate contributors to the relief efforts. They have pledged more than -- they have pledged $5 million. They did write us an email. They said, "I'm surprised your program would choose to divert attention from the unprecedented outpouring of support and coordination among multinational and local relief agencies in Indonesia, by pursuing an ambush interview with one of the largest corporate contributors to those efforts." Derek Baxter, can you respond?
DEREK BAXTER: Well, we welcome ExxonMobil's contribution, but ExxonMobil, we have to remember, has a long debt to the Acehnese people. They are by far the largest corporation operating in Aceh. The amount of profit that they derive from this region is enormous. It dwarfs any other industry in the area. While we're glad that they're helping, sadly, all too long, Exxon has been part of the problem in Aceh. As our lawsuit has alleged, Exxon has knowingly operated its facilities, its natural gas facilities on the northeastern coast of Aceh. They have done so by hiring the Indonesian military forces to provide security, knowing all along, as is a matter of public record, that the Indonesian military's record in that area has been a very difficult one. The military has committed many human rights abuses against the people of Aceh in that area. Their collaboration with ExxonMobil has only worsened the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Derek Baxter, you recently returned, in fact, what, just a week before the tsunami hit, from Indonesia. Can you talk about what you were doing there?
DEREK BAXTER: Certainly. I was very close to Aceh, and part of the problem in actually going to Aceh is that the Indonesian government has not regularly allowed foreigners, journalists, NGOs, etc., to enter without securing special permission, which is very difficult to get. So I was in North Sumatra, very close to Aceh. I met with numerous people, villagers who lived very close to the ExxonMobil facilities in Aceh, who traveled at great personal risk to themselves to North Sumatra, the area where I was, to meet with me. They told me of continuing human rights abuses. Just on the eve of the tsunami, the human rights situation in that part of Aceh was severe, and if anything, it was worsening. I spoke with people who told me that military assigned to protect the ExxonMobil facilities accosted them, extorted them, asked them regularly for contributions of money, of rice, of possessions, which these people had very little, and if there was any protest, they would often be attacked. They would be hauled away from their families, beaten. I spoke to a very young man who had been shot in the right knee, very gruesome. But these atrocities were commonplace. They didn't surprise anybody that I was talking to, because sadly, in that area, right by the ExxonMobil facilities, those abuses of that type have been going on for years, for the entire last decade. We have even heard reports, which we're trying to verify, that five people were killed actually on the liquification plant that ExxonMobil helps to operate. As we have -- as the ILRF have noted in the lawsuit which we filed in 2001, the torture and murder, disappearance, sexual assault of people, Acehnese, living close to these ExxonMobil facilities was all too routine over the last years.
AMY GOODMAN: Derek Baxter, if you are talking about the Indonesian military, why do you hold ExxonMobil accountable?
DEREK BAXTER: That's an excellent question, and we're not seeking to hold them accountable for everything, obviously, that happens in Aceh. There's a long, ongoing civil strife in that area, but in this particular area, ExxonMobil has contracted, as we have said and alleged in our complaint, they have contracted with the Indonesian military to provide security just for the ExxonMobil facilities. We have alleged that this relationship with the Indonesian military includes providing money, directly to them, it includes building -- constructing buildings on ExxonMobil grounds, which the military has used for the torture and disappearance of Acehnese. It includes providing excavating equipment, which ExxonMobil has provided to the military, in which we have alleged the military has then used to construct mass graves of the victims. It's a very close, ongoing relationship, and you have to remember that ExxonMobil wields enormous financial power in this region, and if they are choosing to utilize the military force that has been criticized by many human rights groups for their violations, then we believe, and we believe the law will hold us out on this point, that ExxonMobil will be legally liable for these violations.
AMY GOODMAN: Derek Baxter, we have to break. When we come back, we will also talk with Bama Athreya, about the overall region. Today, there's a piece in the Washington Post that talks about the collaboration between the U.S. military right now and the Indonesian military. Yesterday we went up to the U.N. mission -- to the Indonesian mission to the United Nations where there was a gathering of Acehnese refugees who were encouraging international aid organizations not to funnel their money through the Indonesian government. And they were calling on the Indonesian military not to stop the aid going into Aceh.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to discuss one of the largest corporate contributors to the relief efforts, ExxonMobil - $5 million they say they are giving, we wish we could have them on the program. They declined to participate, but we are talking about an ongoing lawsuit that involves ExxonMobil and its running of one of the largest gas fields in the world in Aceh. I believe that its facility there was not actually damaged by the tsunami. We're joined in Washington studios by two members of the International Labor Rights Fund. We're joined by the Deputy Director of the International Fund, Bama Athreya, as well as Derek Baxter, who is the lawyer who's just returned from Indonesia, a week before the tsunami, interviewing people who are participating in the lawsuit against the -- against ExxonMobil. I was wondering, Bama Athreya, if you could put this in the context of Indonesia, which you have worked on for many years, and in the context of what's happening right now, the massive -- well, the cataclysm that has taken place and what is taking place in Aceh.
BAMA ATHREYA: Sure. That's a big question, Amy, and I'll try and focus it a little bit on the things that you just mentioned. You had mentioned that there has been a call from a number of activists to insure that the aid that people are so very generously giving to the victims of the tsunami is not all funneled through the Indonesian military. And, on context, I think it's important for people here, who are, you know, giving very generously on a personal level to recognize the political context in Aceh. The Indonesian military has been operating basically a war against a separatist movement in Aceh for decades now. And that has had a lot of fallout in terms of human rights violations against innocent civilians throughout Aceh. It's also important to remember that the Indonesian military itself are an extremely corrupt institution. It's estimated that only about 40% of the military's basic operating costs are paid for by the Indonesian government. That means they get the other 60% through extortion. You mentioned that ExxonMobil's given $5 million to the relief effort. Well, we would sure love to know how much ExxonMobil's has given to the Indonesian military over the years. We know they've paid them. We know they've given them logistical support. We know they've housed them. I'm just guessing that their donations, if you'd like to call it that, to the Indonesian military over the years have been far in excess of the $5 million they're now giving to the poor victims in Aceh. So, we're looking at a context where we've got a very corrupt institution, the Indonesian military, which has been extorting local Acehnese villagers, which has been running drug operations and prostitution rings in Aceh, which has been involved in illegal timber operations in Aceh; and now we're going to trust this same institution to be the folks who deliver the aid to the Acehnese victims? It's not a great idea, Amy, and I think that's one of the reasons why we share the position of some of our human rights colleagues here in the U.S. that there have got to be some transparent systems in place to deliver aid to make sure those people in Aceh that have suffered the most really, truly get the food and the medicine that people are donating.
AMY GOODMAN: As you mentioned, Bama, Acehnese and human rights groups have been protesting the funneling of aid to the Indonesian military. Yesterday outside the Indonesian mission to the U.N., a gathering of Acehnese refugees took place. They marched from the U.N. to thank them for supporting huge relief efforts in Indonesia, but then marched over to the Indonesian Mission to the U.N., condemning what they called the Indonesian government's haphazard response to the tsunami. They accuse the Indonesian armed forces of continuing their military operations in Aceh, and of preventing the delivery of aid to victims of the earthquake and tsunami. The refugees charged that rather than helping the people, in a number of areas the troops are intimidating villagers, scaring away --them away from their villages, looting their homes, stealing food. They called on the military to implement an immediate cease-fire.
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