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Human rights and environmental lawyers slammed the Taiwanese court for disregarding Vietnam's human rights situation for the 2016 marine disaster case.
On October 14, 2019, the Taipei District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by nearly 8,000 Vietnamese fishermen against Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group (FPG) over a 2016 marine disaster in Vietnam. The court said that it had no jurisdiction to rule on the case, but the plaintiff's lawyers filed an appeal on October 24.
The marine disaster, which took place on April 6, 2016, is seen as the most serious environmental disaster in Vietnamese history. The incident, caused by the discharge of toxic waste into the sea by FPG subsidiary Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, led to the death of massive amounts of fish and marine life in central Vietnam.
The fishing industry in the affected areas has declined dramatically after the marine disaster and it estimated that complete recovery would take about a decade.
FPG accepted responsibility for the disaster on June 30, 2016, and agreed to give US$500 million in compensation to the Vietnamese government for disaster relief work. Yet, the Vietnamese government mainly gave compensation to those who live in Ha Tinh. Those who live in other parts of central Vietnam, such as Quang Binh, Nghe An, and Quang Tri, have not received any money.
With the assistance of environmental and human rights organizations in Taiwan and Vietnam, lawyers in Taiwan were able to represent 7,875 Vietnamese plaintiffs and present the lawsuit against FPG at the Taipei district court on 11 June 2019, demanding US$4 million dollars in compensation for the first group of 51 plaintiffs.
Although the Taipei District Court had accepted NT$1.2 million (US$39,234) in payment for the case on June 13, four months later, it rejected the case on the grounds that the suit does not fall within its jurisdiction.
Both human rights and environmental lawyers expressed their disappointment with the ruling outside the Taipei district court on October 24 and vowed to bring the jurisdiction rule to the High Court. In a statement released by the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, the organization pointed out that the case should not be confined within an exclusive jurisdiction as the Taiwan-based defendant, FPG, is the key investor and stakeholder of its subsidiary Ha Tinh Steel Corporation in Vietnam.
Huang Hsin-Wen (黃馨雯), one of the lawyers, pointed out that although the marine disaster took place in Vietnam, the Taiwanese court should take into consideration the human rights aspect of the case. "The fact that the court has completely neglected the violent crackdown, unjust arrest, and imprisonment of the victims of the disaster and concluded that the case falls into Vietnam's jurisdiction is against the very principle of fairness," Huang said in a statement.
In fact, more than 500 victims of the marine disaster had attempted to file the case in the Vietnamese courts in October 2016 but were rejected on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their factual damages. When the victims started to present factual evidence of the damages, they were physically attacked by government-sponsored thugs, arrested, and received heavy sentences for anti-state and other convictions.
Vietnamese government's violation of civil rights and freedom has been condemned by the United Nations, including the Human Rights Council and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and documented by a range of independent NGOs. The marine disaster and human rights violations between April 2016 and October 2017 was well documented by Vietnamese independent media outlet, The Vietnamese:
…the marine life disaster involved a humane and political crisis when the Vietnamese government fails to ensure relevant compensation for the victims; they even go further by brutally suppressing voices of dissent. Widespread human rights violations have made 2016 and 2017 dark years for democracy and freedom in Vietnam, characterized by arbitrary detentions, police violence targeted at civilians, and increasing imprisonment of peaceful activists.
Huang also pointed out that the defendant, FPG, should be responsible for the disaster. According to Huang, FPG is the biggest shareholder who established the Vietnamese subsidiary in the first place. FPG is well-known for its centralized decision-making style, Huang said, and all investments were reviewed and approved by its administrative core.
The FPG has a long history of pollution wrongdoing, both within Taiwan and outside of Taiwan. In recent years, FPG and its international subsidiaries have faced major fines and lawsuits in the United States, notably in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi after discharging poisonous chemicals into the land and underground water sources.
After the Taipei District Court ruled the lack of jurisdiction, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) passed an urgent resolution and called on the Taiwanese court to reconsider the FPG case and provide better human rights protection for the interests of the plaintiffs.
"Asserting jurisdiction in this litigation by the court in Taiwan will achieve equity between the parties, fulfill the need for a just and impartial judgment, and ensure the speediness of the proceedings and the idea of litigation economics," FIDH wrote.
Justice for Formosa Victims (JFFV) also started an online petition to ask the Taiwanese court to proceed with this lawsuit. More than 3,000 people have signed this petition to date.
The lawsuit is now pending for a High Court ruling over jurisdiction controversy.
The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Global Voices, a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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