Bhopal and the Case for a Corporate Crimes Tribunal

Around 12:30 I woke up to hear my baby coughing horribly in the dim light,” recounts Aziza Sultan, a social worker in Bhopal, and “I saw that the room was filled with white smoke. I heard many people screaming, calling.”(1) Champa Devi Shukla recalled how “People were desperate to save their lives so they just ran. Those who fell were not picked up by anybody, they were trampled by other people. Even cows were running to save their lives, crushing people as they ran.”(2) Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, a 40 ton cloud of poisonous gas enveloped the provincial capital of Bhopal in India. The deadly fumes originated from a pesticide plant operated by the Union Carbide Company (UCC), one of the first U.S. investors in India. By 1984, the Union Carbide Corporation’s profits were $9.5 billion, making it the largest chemical firm in the world.

As Bhopal collapsed into chaos, its residents afflicted with toxic gasses drifting close to the ground and through the narrow streets and alleys, a medical appeals recorded that: “No one knew what was going on. People were dying everywhere in the most horrible ways imaginableMany were vomiting uncontrollably. Some fell into convulsions and died. Others suffocated, drowning in their own bodily fluids. Many were simply trampled to death in the narrow alleys…as the gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. One woman lost her unborn child as she ran, her womb spontaneously opening in bloody abortion.”(3) Over 4,000 people died immediately, with hundreds of thousands gravely injured. The majority of survivors still await compensation.

The Bhopal Disaster, and others like it, is why a global Corporate Crimes Tribunal needs to be established, convening annually to try corporate crimes against peace and humanity. The owners and investors of UCC failed to properly maintain operating equipment. They neglected to train personnel, specifically with regards to emergency procedures and how to handle dangerous chemicals. UCC also “divested” from Bhopal and its people. It slashed wages (firing or laying-off skilled workers to hire inexperienced ones at cheaper wages), imposed harsh working conditions, threatened labor activists, and silenced those warning of safety issues. As profits failed to reach Bhopal’s infrastructures, making it wholly inadequate to meet an emergency, UCC failed to release information about the plant or the risks involving the production of chemical pesticides.

Even though seven ex-employees of UCC were recently imprisoned and fined $2,000 for causing death by negligence, UCC president Warren Anderson has never been held accountable. As the Bhopal Disaster unfolded, and as evidence mounted against him and UCC, he was arrested by Indian authorities and charged with manslaughter. However, he posted bail, flew to the U.S., and has refused to return to India. India has declared him a fugitive. The U.S. has failed to arrest and extradite him. After the Bhopal Disaster, he and UCC never released precise information regarding the components of the toxic cloud, claiming they were industrial secrets. Because of this, the victims do not know the exact poisons to which they were exposed, nor in what concentration. This keeps doctors from providing adequate medical care. The entire area still remains contaminated.(4)

The UCC’s Bhopal Disaster was like a war, directly killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of people. It is a long corporative war, killing people and causing casualties among the newborn. It is a future war that will affect the unborn. It was also a “disaster of choice.” It did not have to occur. Anderson and UCC indirectly killed people by ensuring that the wealth generated remained in the hands of a small minority, and not Bhopal’s people. This kind of structural violence contributed to many avoidable deaths and casualties. According to Article II of the United Nation’s Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it even qualified as genocide: (c) “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Similar to the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, “willful ignorance” was not an excuse.

Anderson and UCC also “imposed measures intended to prevent births within a group,” another genocidal crime. If people had known that the best reaction to a toxin cloud was to lie flat on the ground with a wet cloth over their face, many lives could have been saved. Instead, people ran around in blind panic. Physical exertion led them to inhale more of the poisonous gases, and more deeply. (Several former Nazi SS guards have been extradited and tried for their crimes against humanity, gassing less Jews than did UCC and Anderson.) And of the 500,000 people exposed to the gas, one-fifth still suffer the after-effects in the form of chronic or incurable illnesses-blindness, high cancer rates, and one in four pregnancies a stillbirth. Union Carbide has reluctantly paid out $690 million in reparations, only a small part ever reaching actual victims.

To this day, Anderson still refuses to face his corporate crimes against peace and humanity. While living in a mansion, he makes short trips to town and enjoys gardening and playing golf. Fearing for his safety, he has hired security. He has also had to carry around an oxygen tank to assist his breathing. That deadly night on December 3 in Bhopal, there were no oxygen tanks. Neither was there any breath for thousands of victims. It is time for a global Corporate Crimes Tribunal.

(1) Gensmer, Herbert and Sybille Kershner and Christian Schultz. Great Disasters. Bath, United Kingdom: Parragon Books Ltd., 2010., p. 293.

(2) Ibid., p. 292.

(3) Ibid., p. 294.

(4) Ibid., p. 295.