Colombia: rights suits against US firms dismissed

On Dec. 15 the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court judge's decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation by family members of three union leaders that the 18th Brigade of the Colombian National Army killed in 2004. In the suit, Saldana v. Occidental Petroleum Corp, the family members argued that under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute the US company shared responsibility for the killings by the Colombian military, which originally claimed that the three unionists were guerrilla fighters. Occidental's Colombian subsidiary and the Colombian state-owned oil company Ecopetrol together gave $6.3 million in assistance to the brigade; the companies said the aid was intended to help the brigade protect a pipeline near the border with Venezuela that rebel groups were attacking.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court, which is based in San Francisco, ruled in an unsigned opinion that the suit treated an inherently political question which couldn't be argued in a US court. (New York Times, Dec. 15, from Reuters)

This was the latest in a string of defeats for human rights suits since April 2013, when a US Supreme Court ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum severely restricted victims' use of the Alien Tort Statute for abuses committed in foreign countries. On Nov. 12 another 9th Circuit Court panel threw out a similar suit against Occidental and a US security contractor, AirScan, Inc., for the killing of 17 people, including six children, in the Colombian air force's Dec. 13, 1998 cluster bomb attack on the village of Santo Domingo, Tame municipality, Arauca department. The 2-1 split decision cited the Kiobel case in dismissing the suit's use of the Alien Tort Statue. The suit, Mujica et al v. AirScan Inc et al, also cited the Torture Victim Protection Act, but the court held that the law doesn't apply to corporate defendants. The decision was written by Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, who as assistant US attorney general in 2002 produced—along with his deputy, John Yoo—the so-called "torture memo" justifying the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on terrorism suspects. (Daily Mail, Nov. 12)

On July 24 the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a 2007 suit against Charlotte, NC-based Chiquita Brands International Inc by some 4,000 Colombians whose relatives were killed by the rightwing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 2007 Chiquita admitted to having paid out $1.7 million to the AUC over seven years; the US government fined the company $25 million for supporting a terrorist organization. In a 2-1 decision the 11th Circuit Court, which is based in Atlanta, ruled out the use of the Alien Tort Statute and, like the 9th Circuit Court, held that Torture Victim Protection Act only applies to people, not to corporations. The decision was written by Judge David Sentelle. Paul Wolf, who represents many of the plaintiffs, called the dismissal of the suit another tragedy for the victims of the war, who have already been through so much." (BBC News, July 24)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 4.