A divided 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed a lower court’s dismissal of claims against the mining giant for genocide and war crimes, while upholding the dismissal of claims for racial discrimination and crimes against humanity.
“The complaint alleges purposeful conduct undertaken by Rio Tinto with the intent to assist in the commission of violence, injury, and death, to the degree necessary to keep its mines open,” Judge Mary Schroeder wrote.
The 6-5 decision on Tuesday revives an 11-year-old lawsuit on behalf of about 10,000 current and former residents of the South Pacific island of Bougainville, where a late 1980s uprising led to the use of military force and many deaths.
The Bougainville residents claimed Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine operations polluted the island and the company forced native workers to live in “slave like” conditions.
They also contended that after workers began to sabotage the mine in 1988, Rio Tinto goaded the government of Papua New Guinea into exacting retribution and conspired to impose a blockade that resulted in the deaths of 10,000 civilians by 1997.
Rio Tinto shut the mine in 1989.
Steve Berman, a lawyer for the Rio Tinto plaintiffs, said: “My clients believe Rio has been covering up its complicity in war crimes and genocide. We’re pleased to be able to return to the district court and begin proving our case.”
Writing for the 9th Circuit, Judge Schroeder said the complaint’s allegation that Rio Tinto’s “worldwide modus operandi” was to treat indigenous non-Caucasians as “expendable” justified restoring the genocide claim to the case.
She also said the allegation that Rio Tinto acted for its own private ends in inducing Papua New Guinea’s military to murder civilians justified restoring the war crimes claim.
Rio Tinto spokesman Tony Shaffer said: “We intend to defend ourselves vigorously against these improper claims.”
The appeals court has returned the case to US District Judge Margaret Morrow in Los Angeles for further proceedings.
But some dissenting judges protested against allowing a lawsuit to proceed in federal courts brought by non-US residents against non-US companies such as Rio Tinto, which has corporate offices in the UK and Australia.
The case is one of several in which non-US residents seek to hold companies responsible in US courts for alleged human rights violations on foreign soil, under a 1789 US law known as the Alien Tort Statute.
Rio Tinto is one of the world’s largest mining companies, with a market value exceeding $95 billion.