Exxon Mobil - PNG's new Bougainville Copper?

By LNG Watch Papua New Guinea

Using the United States’ Alien Tort Act plaintiffs from Aceh, Indonesians have been seeking compensation from Exxon Mobil for almost a decade (Exxon Mobil will operate Papua New Guinea's LNG project). One wonders if they have ever crossed paths with a number of Bougainvillean plaintiffs who have also been using the United States’ Alien Tort Act to obtain compensation from Rio Tinto (Bougainville Copper Limited’s parent). The resemblance between the two cases is striking. 

The Acehnese plaintiffs claim that during the region’s war for independence, Exxon Mobil helped the Indonesian military to abuse civilians. According to their complaint, Exxon Mobil, through its subsidiary PT Arun LNG, built and maintained “Post 13”, where Indonesian special forces tortured and murdered Acehnese civilian. Additionally, Exxon Mobil is accused of having supplied heavy equipment which the military used to dig mass graves for their victims.* Exxon Mobil has strenuously denied the plaintiffs’ accusations.

Similarly, the Bougainville plaintiffs claim that during the region’s war for independence, Rio Tinto, through its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BLC), helped the military to abuse civilians. According to their complaint, BCL supplied PNG’s security forces with vehicles, accommodation, supplies and administration services, which facilitated a prolonged campaign of state terror that saw villages burnt, civilians executed and thousands left homeless. Rio Tinto has strenuously denied these accusations.

Given this parallel of history, concerns must be raised now that Exxon Mobil is looking to operate in Papua New Guinea through its subsidiary Esso Highlands. Especially if Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Police Commissioner Gari Baki’s proposal to develop a Special Operations Group for the LNG project is approved. This proposal would see the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary’s (RPNGC) Mobile Squads deployed en masse to protect the gas operations (Post Courier, 5/10/2010).

While many RPNGC officers serve honorably under conditions of extreme difficulty, the Mobile Squads have a checkered history that should not be ignored. According to a former RPNGC Assistant Commissioner:

Basically the mobile squad people are semi-military, they are aggressive, they don’t do what normal policeman do, they go in there and they beat a few heads in. I am talking frankly, they will knock a few heads in, burn a few houses down, shoot a few pigs, shoot at cars … That is not policing, that is not normal policing … The mobile squads operated with a modus operandi of frightening people   

During the Bougainville conflict the Mobile Squads were responsible for extra-judicial killings, the destruction of villages and the raping of landowners’ wives. More recently, Amnesty International have documented the Mobile Squads’ role in the destruction of village homes and the forced eviction of approximately one thousand people living near the Porgera mine during April 2009.


Image: A Victim of Mobile Squad Excesses, Porgera (Amnesty International 2010) 

While we cannot assume that the Acehnese plaintiffs’ claims are entirely accurate, nevertheless, the eyewitness testimony is powerful enough to raise concerns.* Given that Exxon Mobil will be operating in a highly contested region, where their operations will come under threat from landowner protests, will they be able to responsibly control the security agencies protecting their operations? Indeed, what is their position on Gari Baki’s proposal? Will Exxon Mobil accept assistance from a paramilitary force (i.e. the Mobile Squads) with a sustained history of human rights abuses? If so, will they also help to fund this Special Operations Group proposed by Police Commissioner Baki, which is expected to require an extra K2 billion?

*For more on this story, see the following report by Al Jazeera:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVD6DIm6oDY

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MtrONDC0xs