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Redford ’95 Appeals to Law Students to Fight Human Rights Abuses

A career combating human rights abuses is the most rewarding a lawyer could undertake, co-founder of EarthRights International Katharine Redford ’95 told the crowd in Caplin Auditorium to open the Sixth Annual Conference on Public Service & the Law in February.

Redford went to Thailand during her first summer in law school on a grant from the Public Interest Law Association to write a report on human rights abuses associated with its logging industry. There she met Ka Hsaw Wa, a Burmese student human rights leader, then a refugee from its military dictatorship; they later married. She said she learned from him that soldiers of the Burmese dictatorship were involved in murder, rape, and forced labor as they guarded the 39-mile Yadana pipeline being built to carry natural gas from Indian Ocean wells to Thailand by the American-owned Unocal and French-owned Total. About 35,000 people live in the area affected by the pipeline’s construction.

Redford returned to Thailand the next summer, again on a PILA grant, to research World Bank projects to dam rivers on the Thai-Burma and Thai-Laos borders. She documented more pipeline-associated human rights abuses. As a third-year student, she wrote a paper advancing the novel idea that American corporations could be liable under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a seldom-used law dating to 1789, if it could be shown that they were abetting the Burmese military in human rights abuses. Her professor, Jack Goldsmith, gave the paper an “A,” but told Redford that she was an “idealist.”

EarthRights was founded after she graduated from the Law School (as the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Public Service) with a budget of $40,000. The organization now has offices in New York ; Washington, DC ; and Bangkok, as well as schools in Thailand and Ecuador, an annual budget of $1 million, and a staff of 26.

In 1996, EarthRights filed Doe v. Unocal in state and federal courts. Last December, Unocal entered into unprecedented settlement negotiations, the first time outside the Holocaust context that a corporation has agreed to compensate human rights victims. BusinessWeek reported that a settlement worth $30 million was reached, calling it “a milestone in human rights advancement” and the largest payout to such victims in history.

“I found there was an American oil company partnering with the military dictatorship,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands have become refugees in order to make way for development. This is what I discovered my first summer, that human rights abuses were happening in order to secure natural resources.”

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