Torture Allegations Shadow Rex Tillerson's Time at Exxon Mobil
This week, Congress will consider whether to confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment for secretary of state. Trump’s choice, former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has come under fire for his close relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his lack of government experience. As Tillerson seeks to become America’s top diplomat, another aspect of his past should come under scrutiny: his former company’s troubling ties to allegations of torture and other grave human rights abuses in Indonesia.
Until recently, Exxon Mobil worked extensively in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, home to one of the globe’s largest natural gas fields. A company executive once said that for a time, Exxon Mobil’s operations in the region were “the jewel in the company’s crown.” Back in the 1970s, Mobil Corp.—which in 1999 merged with Exxon Corp.—obtained exclusive rights to extract gas from the area and began a joint venture with the Indonesian government to process it. The company soon started employing Indonesian soldiers to protect its operations there. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, amid a war between the Indonesian military and armed separatists in the region, some of the soldiers working for the company allegedly detained, tortured, and even killed local Indonesian people who lived and worked nearby, according to a lawsuit first filed in the United States in 2001. Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of more Indonesians in 2007 and consolidated with the first.
According to the lawsuits, one plaintiff was allegedly shot in the knee by an Exxon Mobil security official while riding his bike home from a local plantation, where he worked as a laborer. When another plaintiff tried to intervene, a security official stomped on his head. A third plaintiff said security officials shocked him in the genitals with electricity and brought him to a pit filled with human heads. Their lawyer, Terry Collingsworth of International Rights Advocates, says he’s met dozens of people in Aceh with similar complaints. In response to my questions about the case, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil told me the company “categorically denies any complicity in any human rights abuses committed by Indonesian soldiers during an Indonesian civil war.”
The Indonesian plaintiffs say top Exxon Mobil executives in Texas knew or should have known about the alleged abuse but kept the soldiers on board for security anyway. During the first few years of abuse outlined in the complaints, Rex Tillerson was executive vice president of Exxon Mobil Development Company, a subsidiary that develops Exxon Mobil’s exploration and production projects around the world. He became senior vice president of Exxon Mobil Corp. in 2001 and its president a few years later. Exxon Mobil says Tillerson had no responsibility for operations in Aceh “during the relevant time period.” Collingsworth says there’s no evidence to suggest he was making decisions related to the retention of Indonesian soldiers as security.
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