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Katie Redford: Speaking Truth to Power

The simple act of speaking truth to power and refusing to remain silent is an act of audacity and strength and it is the first step in regaining the dignity that had been taken.

Last week, EarthRights International (ERI) announced a settlement between Barrick Gold Corporation and 14 individuals from Papua New Guinea (PNG), including 11 women who had been brutally beaten and raped by Barrick’s security guards.

It took years for this epidemic of rape to come to light. This is quite common: many victims are too scared to speak, enduring the lasting emotional and physical trauma alone. The governments who are supposed to protect communities are usually more than happy to turn a blind eye in the name of development, especially after a bribe or two. Poor laws don’t help, either. Many women are arrested simply for reporting rape. Over 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still legal.

Not our clients. They told their stories of brutal gang rape and killings. They stood up to Barrick — the world’s largest gold mining company — for ignoring the abuse for almost two decades. They demanded respect for their rights and remedy for the injustices they suffered.

Justice takes many forms — often outside the courtroom. Over 20 years ago, we sued California oil giant Unocal for forced labor, torture, rape and killings on their pipeline in Burma. I’ll never forget the day when our client Jane Doe 1 raised her hand and swore under penalty of perjury to tell the truth. With heartbreaking grace and dignity she recounted the day that Burmese soldiers guarding Unocal’s pipeline kicked her and her baby into a fire. Her baby later died. In this windowless conference room in Thailand, no judge or jury was present, no judgment rendered. But in this moment of power and clarity, Jane Doe 1 achieved justice.

Whether it’s villagers from Burma facing Unocal in a deposition and making them listen to their experiences of forced labor and torture or Nigerians telling a California jury about shootings by Chevron’s hired guns, our clients say the same thing: “We told our stories. The companies hide from the truth. They had to listen.”

Now that courts are increasingly hostile to our cause, human rights lawyers must harness the power of the story. Regardless of whether a case is won or lost, whether it was litigated in an open courtroom or settled with scant public comment, the very act of telling their story is a form of justice.

Last week’s settlement is a win for the movement, but, as with all fights worth fighting, there is so much more to do. I will continue to work for a day when corporations, governments, and communities treat all women with the dignity and respect they deserve.