The Dow Chemical Company must stop dodging its responsibility towards the survivors of the Bhopal disaster, Amnesty International said today, after an Indian Court issued a third criminal summons to the company over the catastrophic 1984 gas leak which left thousands dead and many more with chronic and debilitating illnesses.
“The time has come for Dow to appear in an Indian court and account for the failure of its wholly-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide, to respond to the criminal charges against it,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director for Global Issues.
“Refusing to comply with the summons would be to treat the Indian justice system with contempt, undermining Dow’s credibility as an investor in India.”
For 13 years, US chemical giant Dow has denied that it has any responsibility towards the victims and survivors of Bhopal. In 2001, Dow acquired Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the US-based multinational that was majority owner of the company that operated the plant at the time of the leak. UCC has repeatedly ignored orders to appear before the Indian courts to answer criminal charges concerning the disaster. The summons makes it clear that, as 100% owner, Dow has a responsibility to ensure UCC faces these charges.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the disaster. An estimated 22,000 people died following the leak and more than 570,000 were exposed to damaging levels of toxic gas. Many people in Bhopal still suffer from serious health problems. Pollution from the abandoned site has contaminated the local water supply and poses an ongoing threat to the health of surrounding communities.
The criminal summons, issued today by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal, is the third such summons to US-based Dow. The company has been called to appear on 12 November 2014, to explain why it has not produced its wholly-owned subsidiary UCC before the court.
Under Indian law, Dow is required to respond to the summons once properly served. Amnesty International understands that the second summons, issued in February 2014, was not properly served on Dow.
“It is crucial that both the Indian and US governments ensure that the summons is properly and promptly served on Dow this time around. If not, this would just allow Dow to keep dodging its responsibility towards survivors of the Bhopal disaster,” said Audrey Gaughran.
“We will be writing to authorities in India and the USA to stress this point – red tape must not get in the way of justice.”
Since it bought UCC in 2001, Dow has maintained that it is a separate company from UCC and has no responsibility for Bhopal. In a recent letter to Amnesty International, Dow stated that “any efforts to directly involve [Dow] in legal proceedings in India concerning the 1984 Bhopal tragedy are without merit”.
Dow’s position shows a complete disregard for the Indian criminal process and the rights to justice and remedy of the survivors of Bhopal. Dow has also tried to interfere with the judicial process in order to avoid being involved in court proceedings. In a 2005 communication, revealed following a Right to Information request in India, Dow lobbied the Indian government to “implement a consistent, government-wide position that does not promote continued GoI [government of India] litigation efforts against non-Indian companies over the Bhopal tragedy”.
Dow also promised significant future investment in India in an attempt to secure the support of high-ranking government officials for its demand to stop all legal action against the company in India.
“Dow's position is pure hypocrisy - they reap UCC profits but balk at its obligations,” said Audrey Gaughran.
In defending its position on Bhopal, Dow is no stranger to using the law to its advantage. An Indian subsidiary of Dow has gone on the offensive against Bhopal survivors and activists. It has sought restraining orders banning protests and recently tried to sue peaceful demonstrators for business losses incurred during a protest in 2013.
Dow’s management have also used US securities rules to block a May 2014 shareholder resolution asking for a report on the financial, reputational and operational impact of the catastrophe on Dow’s business.
“For over a decade Dow has been allowed to ignore the ongoing human rights disaster in Bhopal. The company must stop shirking its responsibilities to the survivors of Bhopal by complying with this summons and explaining why UCC has failed to appear before the court.”
Criminal proceedings for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” were launched against US-based UCC in 1984. The charges relate to the company’s responsibility for the gas leak. The case against UCC continues to this day because the company has never appeared before the Indian courts to answer the charges against it. In addition to the criminal case, UCC and Dow are embroiled in two civil suits in India relating to the gas leak and contamination at the former plant site. One of these cases, filed by the government of India to claim additional compensation from UCC, Dow and other companies for death and injuries resulting from the gas leak, will be heard before the Indian Supreme Court tomorrow. UCC is also still involved in a civil suit in the US concerning the contamination. The US case was dismissed last week despite the plaintiffs submitting new evidence that UCC oversaw the construction of the Bhopal plant. The plaintiffs are appealing the decision.
Under a treaty between India and the US on criminal matters, the summons will be communicated by the Indian government to the US government for service on Dow at their US headquarters in Michigan.