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Main Content: Rio Tinto lawsuit (re Papua New Guinea)

Case profile: Rio Tinto lawsuit (re Papua New Guinea)

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Residents of the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) filed suit against Rio Tinto under the Alien Tort Claims Act in US federal court in 2000.  The plaintiffs allege that:

  • Rio Tinto was complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the PNG army during a secessionist conflict on Bougainville;
  • environmental impacts from Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine on Bougainville harmed their health in violation of international law; and
  • Rio Tinto engaged in racial discrimination against its black workers at Panguna. 

Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that improperly dumped waste rock and tailings from the Panguna mining operations harmed the island’s environment and the health of its residents.  They allege that Rio Tinto engaged in racially discriminatory labour practices at the mine by paying local black workers lower wages than white workers and by housing black workers in poor conditions.  In 1988, residents from the Panguna region began protesting Rio Tinto’s labour and hiring practices as well as the environmental harm caused by the mine; eventually these protests escalated and some became violent.  The PNG Government responded to this uprising with an attack against civilians.  A decade-long civil war followed (1989-99), in which Bougainville sought independence from PNG and during which the plaintiffs allege that Rio Tinto was complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity by the PNG army. 

Rio Tinto sought dismissal of the case, which the district court granted in 2002. Rio Tinto argued to the trial court that the case raised questions that are “nonjusticiable” (not appropriate for resolution by a US court) because they involve acts of state and political questions, and because ruling on them would breach standards of international comity.  (More information on these three doctrines is available here.)   The trial court agreed, relying in part on a letter from the US State Department favouring dismissal.  The plaintiffs subsequently appealed.  In August of 2006, the US Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal; a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals rehearing the case confirmed the reversal of the lower court’s dismissal in April 2007.  The US Court of Appeals, in August of 2007, granted Rio Tinto a rehearing en banc with a full panel of 11 judges.  In December 2008, the Court of Appeals decided to remand the case back to the district court for the lower court to determine whether the plaintiffs were required to exhaust the remedies in their home country prior to filing the lawsuit in the US.  After another rehearing en banc before the court of appeals, on 26 October 2010 the court referred the case to another judge to explore the possibility of mediation.  One appeals court judge dissented from this order arguing that it was inappropriate to for the court to consider mediation before it determines whether it has jurisdiction over the case.  On 25 October 2011, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's dismissal of the case.  The court upheld the dismissal of the claims regarding racial discrimination and crimes against humanity, but it reversed on the plaintiffs' claims regarding genocide and war crimes.  The case was supposed to return to the district court for further proceedings on the genocide and war crimes claims.  However, following the US Supreme Court's ruling in the Kiobel v. Shell case, the Supreme Court vacated the October 2011 appeals court ruling, and ordered the appeals court to reconsider the case light of the Kiobel decision.   On 28 June 2013 the appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case, citing the Supreme Court's reasoning against the extraterritorial application of the Alien Tort Claims Act.

- "Rio Tinto wins end to human rights abuse lawsuit in U.S.", Jonathan Stempel, Reuters, 29 Jun 2013
- "Court reinforces multi-national decision", UPI, 22 Apr 2013
- "U.S. court revives human rights case vs Rio Tinto", Jonathan Stempel, Reuters, 25 Oct 2011
- "9th Circuit Orders Mediation in Rio Tinto Alien Tort Case", Ginny LaRoe, Recorder [USA], 28 Oct 2010
- "US court hears suit over Rio Tinto Papua NG mine", Dan Levine, Reuters, 21 Sep 2010
- “Rio Tinto Wins Review of Ruling on Papua New Guinea Claims”, Karen Gullo, Bloomberg.com, 20 Aug 2007
- “Islanders Win Appeal in Claim Against Rio Tinto”, Steve James, Reuters, 7 Aug 2006
- “Rio Tinto Court Case”, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, 30 Jul 2002
- “Australia Tries to Thwart Bougainville Class Action”, Greg Roberts, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Mar 2002
- “Islanders Sue in US Over Impact of Rio Tinto Mine”, David Pallister, Guardian [UK], 8 Sep 2000

- Rio Tinto: [PDF] Human Rights Guidance, Oct 2003
- Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP (plaintiffs’ counsel):
    - Rio Tinto Litigation 
    - Plaintiffs Celebrate as Rio Tinto Loses Important Battle in Human Rights Case, 3 Aug 2009
    - U.S. Court of Appeals Again Sides with Plaintiffs in Rio Tinto Alien Tort Claims Case, 16 Apr 2007  

- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei, et al. v. Rio Tinto plc - Order, 28 Jun 2013
- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei, et al. v. Rio Tinto plc - Opinion, 25 Oct 2011
- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 26 Oct 2010 [order referring case to judge to explore possibility of mediation]
- US District Court for the Central District of California: [PDF] Sarei v. Rio Tinto - Order Re Prudential Exhaustion, 31 Jul 2009
- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 16 Dec 2008 [remanding to district court on exhaustion issue]
- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 12 Apr 2007 [rehearing]
- US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: [PDF] Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 8 Aug 2006
- US District Court for the Central District of California: [PDF] Amended Order Granting Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, 09 Jul 2002 

- US State Department: [PDF] Letter re Sarei v. Rio Tinto, 31 Oct 2001
- Govt. of Papua New Guinea: [PDF] Statement on Class Action Lawsuit by Some Bougainvilleans Against Rio Tinto, 18 Oct 2001

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