Labor Rights Fund Hails Progress in Alien Tort Claims Act Suit Against Occidental Petroleum


US State Department’s Response to Judge Gives Green Light to Human Rights Case

April 6, 2004

A human rights case against Occidental Petroleum on behalf of Colombian villagers killed in an aerial bombing raid in 1998 overcame a major impediment last week thanks to a memo from the US State Department.

The suit, Galvis Mujica v. Occidental Petroleum, filed by the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) on April 23, 2003 in US District Court in Los Angeles under the Alien Tort Claims Act, cites Occidental Petroleum for its role in the bombing of the village of Santo Domingo that killed seventeen residents and wounded others.

Last week, on March 30th, the State Department’s Acting Legal Adviser, James H. Thessin, indicated that he had no foreign policy objections to the lawsuit’s proceeding. In a letter to an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division of the US Justice Department, Thessin wrote, “…[W]e do not believe that we have a sufficient factual basis upon which to make a reasoned assessment of the likely impact of the litigation upon our foreign relations.”

"The State Department’s refusal to express opposition to the case effectively allows us to go forward against Occidental. Given its prior condemnation of the Santo Domingo massacre, the State Department simply could not have sided with Occidental here.Rather than hiding behind implausible arguments based on foreign affairs, Occidental Petroleum will now have to answer the allegations against it," said Terry Collingsworth, ILRF's executive director and counsel for the plaintiff.

On February 3, 2004, a U.S. District Judge requested the views of the U.S. State Department regarding the Occidental case in which the plaintiffs allege involvement of the oil giant and its security contractor AirScan, in the Santo Domingo massacre in Aruca, Colombia. There, a Blackhawk helicopter, acting on instructions from Airscan, dropped a U.S. made cluster bomb on the Colombian hamlet. While the State Department remained agnostic on the “factual basis” for evaluating the foreign policy implications of the lawsuit, it is well aware of the facts of the case, which led to the withdraw of substantial US support for the military unit involved in the massacre.

The State Department has intervened in other Alien Tort cases to oppose legal proceedings. In a recent suit filed in California against the Rio Tinto mining company in connection with its operations in Papua, New Guinea, the State Department's opposition, based on foreign policy considerations, led to dismissal of the case.