Karen Flaherty, Board Member
Right Livelihood Award Case Study 1990
Plenty Board Members, Rob Hager and Karen Flaherty, have been involved with litigation and public education of the issues surrounding Union Carbide’s Bhopal Gas Disaster. Hager is a Washington, D.C. public interest lawyer who represented the National Council of Churches, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Consumer’s Union and other organizations, filing an amicus brief (Literally, friend of the court. A person with strong interest in or views on the subject matter of an action, but not a party to the action, may petition the court for permission to file a brief, ostensibly on behalf of a party but actually to suggest a rationale consistent with its own views.) in the federal court in New York, in support of the Bhopal victims’ request that their claims be tried in the U.S. He has filed briefs in Texas state courts on behalf of victims, as well.
After almost five years ago this December 2, the “world’s worst industrial accident,” caused by the release of 42 tons of poisonous gas by Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) leaking pesticide plant, killed at least 4000 people — and is still killing people. An average of two people die every day as a result of the gassing five years ago, and the damage is passing on to the next generation through higher infant mortality, birth defects and abnormalities. Nobody’s getting better, either. Instead of recuperating, they are getting steadily worse.
A fate worse than death?
Over 60,000 are still seriously affected —deterioration of the lungs, eyes, skin, as well as reproductive and immune system damage. Ulcers, colitis, hysteria, neurosis, and memory loss to name a few more to add to the list of chronic problems suffered by the victims as many await a slow death or cancer to come. Some of the doctors who’ve been treating the survivors are now sick with the same symptoms, gagging and coughing. The misery of such debilitated life with nothing to hope for has fostered the attitude among the survivors that “the dead ones are the only happy ones in Bhopal. Their problems are over. Ours only grow worse.”
To add to the injury is the insulting behavior of Union Carbide, the United States justice system, as well as the Indian Government. The U.S. court refused to hear the case here in the U.S., even though the victims and the Government of India asked for that. Now there is no precedent for holding U.S. based multinational corporation liable here for killing and maiming foreign victims and therefore no deterrent effect — to force corporations to operate hazardous technologies as safely as possible everywhere, so that it won’t happen again… and there are thousands of mini-Bhopal’s waiting to happen. By protecting U.S. corporations from paying the real price for their actions, we will also be paying the price ourselves, in a less safe world.
Union Carbide has not only gotten away with killing thousands — they have actually made money on the deal. To reduce their asset base — so they wouldn’t have as much to pay for any court ordered judgment against them, UCC sold off a big portion of their assets and gave the profits to their shareholders. GAF Corporation made $60 million by doing UCC a favor in a “hostile” takeover attempt, that was engineered by Wall Street brokers to raise the stock’s price. Union Carbide paid $500 million in just pre-payment penalties for retiring their debts early — while now offering the victims a paltry $470 million settlement. A 1988 quarterly report cites “the highest third quarter net income in the company’s history,” and the first quarter of 1989 was almost double that!
Besides further efforts to bring suit against Union Carbide in the United States, we are hoping to be able to influence future international environmental debates and agreements to address the grave questions this case poses for the expanding multinational culture which cuts across all borders and ideologies. What court is capable of serving justice in a case between a defendant with virtually unlimited funds and political clout, and a powerless plaintiff? Lacking an effective legal response, can multinational ethics evolve fast enough and far enough to reverse disastrous global trends?
A terrible irony is seen in Bhopal, in that the part of the sleeping city most seriously hit was largely populated by landless farmers who’d moved to the city to find work, their subsistence farms swallowed up by the appetites and scaled up economies of chemical agriculture — the so-called “Green Revolution” — which the Bhopal Union Carbide plant had fed.
Bhopal Justice Campaign
Plenty Bulletin Winter 1991 Vol. 7, No. 4
December 2-3,1991 marked the 7th anniversary of Union Carbide’s toxic gas disaster at its Bhopal, India, pesticide factory. Until the full effects of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe are acknowledged, the explosion at the Bhopal plant in 1984 continues to be known as the “world’s worst industrial disaster.” Methyl isocyanate (MIC), a deadly gas used to make pesticides, was released over more than 15 square miles, exposing some of the most densely populated and poorest sections of the city. More than 4,000 people were killed, and the hundreds of thousands injured now face chronic diseases of the eyes, lungs and nerves, birth defects, and latent cancers. Seven years later, one or two victims still die every day because of injuries due to the gas exposure.
On October 3rd of this year, the Supreme Court of India upheld the far from adequate settlement of $470 million that Union Carbide arranged with Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1989. A dangerous precedent is being set. The Indian courts have gone along with the American courts in shielding U.S.-based multinational corporations from paying any real price for reckless operations abroad. Since it’s cheaper to pay off plaintiffs at third world rates, rather than at the value placed here on American lives, there is no real financial deterrent to persuade multi-nationals to act responsibly and operate safely. Union Carbide continues to enjoy high profits and remains unpenalized for its negligence and terrible harm to hundreds of thousands of people.
The Bhopal Justice Campaign (BJC) is a public education project and was formed to assist the creation of a political climate that would support potential public-interest litigation against Union Carbide in California and/or Texas state courts. Begun in 1988, in Los Angeles, by friends and supporters of victims and activists in Bhopal, the BJC is an outgrowth of work begun by public-interest attorney, Rob Hager, and Karen Flaherty, who were members of the 1985 Citizens Commission on Bhopal, in Washington, DC. Both are members of Plenty’s Board of Directors. Rob has been involved in litigation arguing that the case against Union Carbide should be heard here in the U.S., since the Corporation’s headquarters and assets are here. Criminal charges against Carbide officials in India may proceed and a case in Texas courts may yet open the way for future litigation.
While we await the further legal developments, and the victims await compensation payments, Plenty has agreed to sponsor the BJC, as we expand the project to assist one of the large victims groups in its efforts to buy land to grow pesticide-free food as well as to feed and heal themselves. This group wants to eventually set up an independent health-monitoring system and primary care clinic, as well as rehabilitation and job-training services.
Bhopal Justice Campaign Update
Karen Flaherty, Bhopal Project Director
Plenty Bulletin, Winter 1992, Vol. 8, No. 4
December 2nd and 3rd mark the 8th anniversary of the “world’s worst industrial accident,” the poison gas disaster at Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India in 1984. Over 4,000 people were killed, and the hundreds of thousands injured suffer from chronic diseases of the eyes, lungs and nerves, and face a future of birth defects and cancers. Even though the Indian Supreme Court upheld an inadequate settlement this year, victims still await compensation as the Government of India haggles over how to distribute the paltry funds. And people are still dying every week from the gas exposure.
The settlement order also stipulated that the Indian government order the extradition of Carbide’s former Chairman, Warren Anderson, from the U.S. to stand trial on criminal charges. Few think that possible and see it merely as a crumb thrown to activists who opposed the settlement. The Indian government has, however, frozen Carbide’s assets in the country upon getting word that they plan to cease all operations in India.
The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) held its session on Industrial and Environmental Hazards in Bhopal this year. The PPT is an international court of public opinion and is the successor to the Bertrand Russell Tribunals on crimes against humanity in Vietnam and Chile. The Tribunal was established in 1979 as a quasi-judicial international committee to propose specific remedies to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and other international bodies, for such violations of people’s rights.
The various victims groups who have presented testimonies at the last two sessions of the Tribunal held in the U.S. and Thailand in 1991 included Vietnam citizens and veterans exposed to U.S. spraying of agent orange; women who used the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine contraceptive device; people exposed to radiation from nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and mercury poisoning in Japan; and people affected by the storage and dumping of hazardous chemicals in Thailand.
Specific cases to be heard at the next session include: Industrial pollution at Hattir, Pakistan; radioactive gas exposures at Asian Rare Earth, Malaysia; gold mining in northern Philippines; hazardous industries in Free Trade Zone, Sri Lanka; carbon disulphide poisoning, Korea; factory fires in China; chemical explosions in Hong Kong’s fur factories; asbestoses and related work hazards in India as well as the poison gas disaster in Bhopal.