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Katie Redford's pipe dream

Her professor told her it couldn't be done, but the activist is using a 200-year-old law to go after human rights abuses in Burma

NEW YORK -- When Katie Redford first turned in a law school paper suggesting the use of an ancient federal statute to fight human rights abuses in Burma, her professor gave her an A. But he warned that such a case would never occur. "Don't be an idealist," he chided. That was nearly 10 years ago. Today that student paper, "Using the Alien Torts Claims Act: Unocal v. Burma," is the basis of a lawsuit that is in both state and federal court in California. And Redford is the spark behind the groundbreaking case. The act dates back to 1789, when George Washington signed the fledgling nation's first Judiciary Act. An obscure provision in it appears to give foreigners the right to sue in federal court over violations of international law. Though the act has been used to sue individuals, it has never been used successfully to sue a corporation for human rights abuses.

In her 1994 law school paper, Redford had argued that such violations would include human rights abuses by the Burmese military, which was guarding construction in its country at a pipeline partly owned by Unocal, a California oil company. That is precisely what will be argued by lawyers on Dec. 3, when the case is heard in California Superior Court.

As for the federal case, a decision on whether it will proceed to trial is pending. A three-judge appeals panel reversed a lower court's decision and ruled that Unocal may be liable for "aiding and abetting" the military in forced

labor, murder, and rape since the company hired the soldiers and provided maps and information about the pipeline. The lower court had dismissed the suit because the company did not directly participate in the alleged abuses -- though the judge said there was evidence that Unocal knew forced labor was being used and that it benefited from the project. Unocal has appealed the appellate court's ruling. Redford says she is confident the case will proceed to trial. "You can't put corporations above the law when fighting human rights abuses," says Redford, now a 35-year-old mother of two.

Redford had a sheltered childhood in Wellesley, the daughter of a businessman and a social worker. Her mother, Noel, still lives in the family home; her father died when she was 15. Redford's younger brother, Michael, lives in Boston, where he teaches English as a second language.

After graduating from Wellesley High School, Redford chose Colgate University in rural upstate New York -- for its swimming pool. "Things are kind of random when you're 18," she says, laughing. But she quickly found that spending six hours a day in the water as part of the swimming and diving teams was too much. She quit and began playing rugby, a Division I sport at Colgate. "Our motto was `elegant violence.' We used to go play other schools, and they'd say, `Oh, the anorexics are here.' Or `Don't break a fingernail, girls.' But we were fast. We won much more than we lost."

Redford knew she wanted to be a lawyer but felt she had not yet seen the world. After graduating from college, she signed on with the WorldTeach program and found herself teaching English in a village on the Thai-Burmese border.

It was 1991, and the AIDS epidemic was rampant in Thailand; Redford kept a box of condoms on her desk for her students. She also began to hear about problems with excessive logging in the jungle and started incorporating lessons on AIDS and the environment into her English classes.

On her summer break she visited a Thai refugee camp and lived with a family who had fled the Burmese military dictatorship. There she taught English in a bamboo hut. Along the border, bombs would explode from battles between the military and its opposition. Every day brought new streams of refugees, with tales of rape, torture, killing, and forced labor.

"The stories were just jaw-dropping," she says, sitting in a small, stuffy office in lower Manhattan, where she has come to consult on the Unocal case with lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Please don't forget about us," the refugees pleaded. "Use your freedom to promote ours."

It was a phrase that stuck with her as she headed home to enroll in law school at the University of Virginia. Redford went to class with great ambivalence, feeling a tug between her head and her heart. "Over there, I felt like I'd found my calling, but I also recognized that becoming a lawyer would be a tool to help."

As soon as school was out for the summer, she left again for Thailand, this time as an intern for Human Rights Watch, documenting abuses associated with forced labor. She returned to the same refugee camp to live with the same Burmese family she had stayed with the summer before. The father, a pro-democracy activist, arranged to sneak her into Burma. (The military, which staged a coup in 1988, officially changed the country's name to Myanmar the following year.)

Everywhere Redford went, people told her: "If you want to talk about human rights abuses, you must find Ka Hsaw Wa." He was a student activist who had fled to the jungle and was collecting villagers' tales of abuse under the junta.

When Redford found him, he hired a boat, and a small group spent three weeks paddling up the Salween River, stopping at villages near the front lines of fighting between the military and the opposition. "I interviewed people who had been raped by the military, who had been relocated at gunpoint and had seen their villages go up in flames," says Redford, who speaks Thai. "To add insult to injury, they were being forced to labor on logging."

During the trip, Redford contracted malaria. But she delayed her research by only one day while she visited Doctors Without Borders inside the "liberated territory," controlled by the opposition. "It was like everyone I was interviewing had malaria and they'd been raped and tortured," she says. "I couldn't wimp out."

She lost 20 pounds, wrote up her report, and returned home to law school. Besides malaria, she'd contracted another condition on the trip: a secret crush on Ka Hsaw Wa. "But this was completely ridiculous; it was worse than Tarzan meets Jane," she says. They came from two different worlds: While she was playing rugby and partying in college, he was challenging the military dictatorship, getting arrested, and being tortured. In 1988, when the military staged a coup, he fled to the liberated territory. Instead of fighting, he picked up a pen and began recording the villagers' stories.

Meanwhile, as her classmates were donning suits and interviewing with law firms, Redford started a human rights group on campus. The summer after their second year, she and two classmates got a fellowship to look at the World Bank's presence in Thailand and Burma. But Ka Hsaw Wa told them the real story was the Yadana Pipeline, being built by French company Total and Unocal, which is headquartered in El Segundo, Calif. The 39-mile natural gas line cuts through the Burmese jungle to the Thai border.

"Thousands of villagers were being conscripted by the military to build barracks -- men, women, children, the elderly, the sick," says Redford. The lawsuit includes 14 "Jane and John Doe" plaintiffs. There's the woman who alleges the military forced her family to leave their home and kicked her baby into the fire, where he died. There are stories of the regime torturing village leaders when they failed to provide enough porters for pipeline work. There are stories of rapes and killings.

The $1.2 billion pipeline project is the largest source of foreign money for the military, says Redford, and has been used to buy weapons to further the junta's brutal rule.

When villagers began asking Redford and her law school classmates whether it would be illegal to blow up the pipeline, Redford knew she had to find a legal way of stopping the abuses. "We were horrified and embarrassed that an American company was doing business with this dictatorship," she says.

For its part, Unocal says the claims have no merit. "We really see it as an attempt to utilize the judicial process for political purposes -- that is, people dissatisfied with the Myanmar government," says Charles Strathman, an attorney for the company. "We think that's best left to US foreign policy and Congress and the administration, as opposed to involving parties like Unocal. . . . We were simply an investor. All of the alleged victims . . . were not US residents or citizens, and all the actions were actions of a foreign government."

That summer between Redford's second and third year of law school, a romance began to bloom between her and Ka Hsaw Wa. "My thought was, she comes from America and she must have a big heart for human rights abuses to care so much about my country," says Ka Hsaw Wa. Says Redford: "He had this kind of passion and compassion for the suffering people, as he called them, and a total commitment to letting the world know what was happening."

And malaria aside, she says, she found the whole experience of going into a war zone and traveling "on a wild river in the jungle" romantic. That and the fact that Ka Hsaw Wa, with his "dashing good looks," helped nurse her back to health.

But when summer ended, Redford had to leave him and return to law school. Her third year, she did an independent research project on the Alien Torts Claims Act and Unocal's role in the Burmese pipeline, the paper that earned her an A. She also wrote a grant proposal to start EarthRights International, a nonprofit human rights organization. The day after she took the bar examination, in 1995, she returned to Thailand to live and run the newly formed group with Ka Hsaw Wa and a fellow law school graduate.

"We had $30,000, and we were clueless," says Redford. She laughs. "We didn't listen to people who told us it couldn't be done. That's why I think it's so important for young people to do this kind of work. Older people wouldn't do it."

Kenny Bruno, the campaigns coordinator for EarthRights, agrees. "Katie was outraged by the injustices and in a way was naive enough to think she could take them on. A lot of people would be daunted, but she was young and energetic. She's had one hand holding a baby on her breast and the other on a cellphone, saving the world."

In November of 1996, Redford and Ka Hsaw Wa were married in a Thai village; they honeymooned in Phuket. The following October, she filed Doe v. Unocal, and in March of 1997 it became the first case in which jurisdiction was granted over a corporation for human rights abuses overseas.

That's when Redford sent a note to her old law school professor -- the one who told her not to be an idealist. "I said something like, `Ha ha, I guess we see who's right.' It was good-natured," says Redford. He sent back a note of congratulations, adding: "You're right -- for the time being."

Since then, Redford says, her former professor, Jack Goldsmith, has been writing about the case. "He's like the poster-child scholar for the other side," she says. It did not surprise her when he was nominated by Attorney General John Ashcroft to head the office of legal counsel for the Justice Department. She attended a recent confirmation hearing, where she and her old professor hugged and promised to meet for lunch.

Redford thinks it's ironic that the Justice Department has joined Unocal in a friend-of-the-court brief. "Our country has the strongest sanctions against Burma that we've ever had against any country. It's just a transparent effort to protect [the Bush administration's] corporate friends."

As for Goldsmith, who was confirmed as assistant attorney general this month, he says of Redford: "I like Katie very much. I admire her. She was a great student who has done great work." He won't talk about the case, though he has written that he believes certain aspects of the lawsuits are wrongheaded.

Redford and her husband live in a pink house in Takoma Park, Md., with their 6-year-old daughter, Alexis, and 2-year-old son, Htooeh. "We don't want to spend money to repaint the house," says Ka Hsaw Wa, who is 33. He spends time directing EarthRights International, speaking to groups about human rights abuses in Burma, and traveling back and forth to Thailand, where he slips across the border to his homeland. He is at the top of a military blacklist and hasn't seen his mother or siblings in 15 years.

Often Redford accompanies him. Sometimes they take the children. "Alexis has had her passport since she was 5 days old," Redford says. If you ask her what her parents do for a living, the first-grader replies: "They help the people, the trees, and the animals."

Her mother laughs. "She thinks that's what all parents do for a living."

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