Hot Docs: Colombian labor activist sues BP for torture injuries

March 1, 2012

BP ColombiaLatin America’s history isn’t exactly a peaceful one, especially looking at the past 60 years or so.

Colombia’s own history is no exception.

In fact, the civil war that started there in the mid-1960s is still ongoing today.

The long civil war has given rise to several paramilitary groups, some pro-government, and some against.

The civil war hasn’t been enough to dissuade oil companies, such as BP, from engaging in oil exploration and production in Colombia.

To avoid getting too much further into a dissertation on the current political and economic circumstances of Colombia, I’ll just say that labor regulations there are minimal, collusion between the military and pro-government paramilitary forces is common, and human rights violations are rampant.

Gilberto Edgar Torres Martínez is a victim of such human rights violations.

Torres was a labor rights activist in the Casanare region where BP’s Colombian subsidiary BPXC operated and a member of the workers union there, Unión Sindical Obrera (“USO”), the largest union in Colombia’s petroleum industry.

In the mid 1990s, BP entered into an agreement with the Colombian National Army (CNA), the nation’s official military force, to provide security at its Colombian facilities.

In February 2002, Torres was kidnapped by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), Colombia’s largest pro-government paramilitary group, and subjected to 42 days of sequestration, during which he was physically and mentally tortured.

Torres is now suing BP for these acts committed against him in Colombia.

Hot Doc: Martinez v. BP PLC

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

Torres is connecting the dots between the AUC – the group responsible for his torture – and the CAN – the official Colombian military that BP paid for security during the time of Torres’s torture – by pointing to the long history of collaboration between the groups.

In fact, Torres’s complaint explicitly states that the AUC in Casanare was integrated into the CAN.

Torres’s allegations aren’t incorrect: the Colombian government has a long history of supporting and directly working with pro-government paramilitary groups such as the AUC.

It’s very likely that Torres was targeted by the AUC and the Colombian government, perhaps at the behest of BP, because of his pro-labor activities.

That really isn’t the issue here, though.

It actually wouldn’t matter if BP officials had directly ordered the capture and torture of Torres.

Why?

Because Torres is suing BP under the Alien Torts Statute (ATS).

I wrote two days ago that the Supreme Court was going to hear Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, a case also about an oil company committing human rights abuses abroad and brought under the ATS.

I predicted that the Court would rule that the ATS does not extend tort liability for human rights abuses to corporations.

Oral arguments occurred the same day, and, as it turns out, that prediction looks to be accurate.

The conservative Justices seemed to put little effort into hiding their views on the case, with Justice Kennedy – the possible swing vote – first out of the gate to vigorously defend corporations from liability.

The Kiobel decision will be handed down by the end of June.

At that time, pending a significant change of heart on the part of the conservative Justices, Torres’s suit and all others like it will be summarily dismissed, since the ATS would no longer be useable against corporations for human rights violations.

Because of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Colombia can’t be sued for its part in Torres’s ordeal, so Torres will have to identify the individuals responsible for his capture and torture, and bring suit against them instead.

Good luck with that, Mr. Torres.