Jul 30, 2002

Rio Tinto Court case

On 25 March this year, Judge Margaret Morrow of the Federal District Court of California dismissed the claim for environmental damage and human rights abuse brought against mining giant Rio Tinto by the people of Bougainville.

The claim, arising from the operations of the Bougainville copper mine, was dismissed by Judge Morrow following intervention by the US State Department on behalf of the Papua New Guinea government (PNG).

The judge relied on a statement of interest filed in the court, which said further adjudication of the case might adversely affect US foreign policy interests. The US State Department had received representations from the PNG that the case would interfere with the Bougainville peace process and might even affect the relationship between the PNG and the US. According to the PNG government the way in which the claim against Rio Tinto has been framed includes some very serious allegations against the State of PNG.

"These allegations have potentially serious implications for Papua New Guinea's national interests, including our reputation for good governance in the eyes of international financial institutions, foreign aid donors, banks and investors, trading and other partners.” (abstract from an official press release).

However, the judge made her dismissal conditional on the landowners being able to continue their action in a PNG court, which is contrary to PNG law. Within 30 days of the date of this order, the court should have received the PNG government’s written consent to have the action proceed in PNG courts despite the provisions of the compensation Act.

Former Bougainville Revolutionary Army commander, Edwin Moses was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying: "We know that with the legal system in PNG we have no chance of getting justice for all the damage to our people and the environment.” The conditions set by the US court will probably mean the case will be reopened in the United States.

On 22 April 2002, the PNG government made an official request to the US State Department to approach the court. “The Government requested an additional 60 days to respond in order to analyse the issues in greater detail,” Mr Walton, the lawyer representing the people of Bougainville in the United States said.