Activists Demand Action At Chevron Shareholder Meeting

By Tony Cruz, Amnesty’s Business & Human Rights Group

Gas is flaring in the Niger Delta. © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

On May 25, 2011, I attended Chevron’s Annual Shareholder’s Meeting representing Amnesty International.  This is the 4th meeting I’ve attended but much has changed since 2005.

With the recent 9 billion dollar class action verdict in Ecuador (and last year’s arrests in Houston), security was high and there were real questions as to whether or not the international delegation of NGOs would be allowed in. Fortunately, after an extensive security check, which makes TSA like a walk in the park, we were all allowed in to speak.

During the Q & A portion of the meeting, I addressed Chairman John Watson on the use of gas flaring in the Niger Delta; a technology that has led to serious health related issues and environmental contamination:

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Chevron Found Guilty in $8 Billion Ecuadorian Human Rights and Environmental Case

By Chip Pitts, Lecturer in Law, Stanford Law School and Oxford University; former Chair, Amnesty International USA

After an eighteen-year, multinational court battle, Chevron was found guilty today in an Ecuadorian court and fined $8 billion for pollution that amounted to an ecological disaster and seriously harmed the human rights of the indigenous inhabitants in a small and sensitive part of the rainforest.

Before human rights, environmental, and corporate accountability advocates celebrate too quickly, however, they should be aware that the litigation – already so reminiscent of Dickens’ Bleak House – is likely to go on for some time yet.

Background to the Case

The heart of the claim – about which you can read much more at the website of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre — is that the oil company Texaco contaminated the land in question over three decades, dumping oil-drilling waste in unlined pits, contaminating the forest and causing illness and death among the local inhabitants. When Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs say, Chevron acceded to responsibility for the harm done.  Chevron, in turn, argues that a 1998 agreement Texaco signed with Ecuador limits its liability at the $40 million allegedly spent on cleanup, and that any remaining pollution resulted from subsequent operations by state oil company Petroecuador.

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Freedom of Expression, Incessantly Suppressed in Latin America

The Inter American Press Association has been calling attention to numerous governmental acts intended to censure and inhibit freedom of expression in Latin America. As political leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been leading the efforts in funding media outlets that do little else than disseminate political propaganda, the problem is spreading fast throughout the entire region.

Silence Image

In Ecuador, the federal government seized the newspaper El Telégrafo, after they also confiscated the assets of banker and major shareholder Fernando Aspiazu, who was jailed on charges of fraud and unlawful activity in the now defunct Banco de Progreso he owned.  The authorities redesigned the newspaper and are now using it to spread hard-hitting official advertising campaigns.

In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner declared the two leading newspapers in the country, El Clarin and La Nacion, as enemies of her government. Since then, she has tried to find ways to control their activities. With this objective in mind she took over the nation’s main supplier of newsprint, alleging that the two leading newspapers illegally conspired with dictators to control the company three decades ago and then used it to drive competing newspapers out of business.

In Brazil, with the blessing of the federal government, at least five states are trying to enact legislation intended to create agencies that would allow the local Executive Power to control and overrule local media’s activities.

In Mexico, it is not the action of the government, but its inaction that is affecting local media. In the past six months 14 journalists have been killed. The headquarters of the Newspaper “El Sur”, in Acapulco, were attacked by drug cartels, all because the reporters and the media dared to denounce the illegal activities and organized crimes in the country.

The examples go on and on.  Authorities in Latin America are trying to suppress freedom of expression.  Without these vital components of democracy, the livelihood of the nations is endangered at its very core. Hundreds, if not thousands of people throughout the region have given money, work and their lives to ensure that their countries may one day enjoy true freedom of expression, uncensored and unadulterated by their governments.  But, with the most recent actions (or inactions) of the regions governments, all pro-democratic efforts may result in vain.  The progress that had been made is being reversed. The days in which one could give an opinion may soon come to an end.  Authorities must stop.  And civil society must act now.

To those of you who are reading this article, realize that you are doing so precisely because some freedom of expression is still possible.  Together we can and we must ensure that oppressive governments do not put an end to our rights.

Ecuador First Country to Ratify New UN Protocol for Human Rights Justice

Access to justice is an essential right for victims of all human rights violations. Today, Ecuador became the first country to ratify the new UN mechanism that will enable people denied their human rights to have their complaints heard in front of an independent, international panel of experts.

The Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights allows individuals and groups within the country to seek justice from the UN should these rights – which include the rights to adequate housing, food, water, health, work, social security and education – be violated by their government.

Civil and political rights often take center stage when talking about human rights, leaving economic, social and cultural rights to be historically neglected from the human rights discourse. Although States agreed at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights that “the international community must treat human rights globally in a fair an equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis,” the Optional Protocol is a real, tangible development towards this end.  We are hopeful that other countries will follow Ecuador’s lead and sign and ratify the Protocol.

The Optional Protocol that Ecuador ratified will enable people, particularly those living in poverty, to hold their government accountable.  It will allow those who have been denied their human rights to voice their concerns in front of an independent, international panel of experts.  Decisions made here, through this new mechanism, will likely influence decisions of national and regional courts around the world.

This complaint mechanism will become operational after 10 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol.  31 countries, in addition to Ecuador, have signed the protocol, noting their intention to ratify it and make it legally binding.

The United States is not among the 32 countries that have signed the Optional Protocol. In fact, though the U.S. signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1992 (26 years after it opened for signatures), it still has not yet ratified the covenant.

Nick Janizeh contributed to this post.

Sleeper Hits of the Summer – Part 1: The Curious Case of 30,000 Indigenous People vs. Chevron

By Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Among my picks for sleeper hits of the summer, is a powerful documentary film called Crude: The Real Price of Oil. The film is described as a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. For the most part, the main characters aren’t actors… well, I mean Chevron’s invested a lot of money and time in their web of lies, so maybe they’ve been taking acting lessons. And so far, Chevron’s signature method of acting has been to deny responsibility and shift the blame for contaminated soil and groundwater in the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

:: Learn more about the history of oil in the Amazon and Amnesty’s work ::

On Sunday, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of how indigenous communities suffer disproportionately from low health standards linked to poverty, malnutrition, environmental contamination and inadequate healthcare marking the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The hardship and discrimination faced by indigenous peoples has a lot to do with the fact that they are often excluded from decision-making processes – by both governments and corporations. In her Op-Ed piece, Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for more than a symbolic celebration saying, after centuries of repression, they need comprehensive tools to defend their human rights, their way of life, and their aspirations.

And that’s what makes the case against Chevron a compelling story for film – not unlike the Doe v. Unocal lawsuit or, more recently, Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell. Indigenous peoples are gaining access to the legal system to challenge governments and transnational companies and defend their human rights. You might not know their names, but the 30,000 indigenous people who filed suit against Texaco (now Chevron) in 1993 are more than Extras. They are the real-life protagonists.

Sleeper hits are made by word of mouth recommendations. Crude: The Real Price of Oil opens to larger audiences on 09/09/09. Take action now to show your support of human rights for the indigenous communities of Amazon’s Ecuador.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil Trailer

Amnesty Int'l Blocked from Chevron Shareholder Meeting

By Tony Cruz, member of Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

On Wednesday, May 27th, I traveled to Chevron’s Annual Shareholder Meeting to represent Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) and its interests as a shareholder of Chevron Corporation (CVX) and to join other NGOs in a delegation to address the company’s role in some of the most well publicized human rights abuses across the globe. Maybe you’ve heard the good news that Toxic Waste Won’t Make You Sick!

Unfortunately, I was turned away at the door. I had the AIUSA proxy (ticket) in hand, but I did not have a letter from the AIUSA brokerage firm. Chevron claimed that I lacked sufficient documentation to attend the meeting. In other words, I had the legal right to attend, but was denied entrance because of a technicality.

Attending these shareholder meetings is one the highlights of my year: a 3-5 minute war of words with the MAN, a verbal boxing match between Amnesty International and Chevron. Had I been allowed to represent AIUSA at the meeting, I would have made the following statement:

In a recent 60 Minutes interview, your representative claimed that the judicial system in Ecuador cannot be trusted. But the fact is that the trial is currently taking place in Ecuador at Chevron’s request after the company REQUESTED that it be transferred out of the U.S. federal court, where it was filed in 1993. Can you explain why you have changed your mind, aside from wanting to drag this case out as long as possible with utter disregard for the rights of the plaintiffs? And in the same interview, your representative claimed that the toxic sludge that the Ecuadorian communities are exposed to is no worse than the makeup she is wearing. Do you really believe that?

I didn’t get to represent AIUSA members inside the meeting, so I dusted myself off, walked to the front of Chevron Headquarters, and joined the strong 100 protesters in supporting the NGO delegation. Later that afternoon, I went online and read the headlines: Chevron Meeting Heats Up Over Ecuador Lawsuit; Chevron CEO Clashes with Activists at Annual Meeting; and “Chevron CEO says Resemblance to Pinocchio is just coincidental”. Ok, so I made that last one up. But it was a victory! The meeting received great press. I have never been more confident that Chevron will be held accountable because of everyday people, who showed up at the crack of dawn on a Wednesday morning in San Ramon, California to support people they will never meet.

Learn more about Amnesty’s Shareholder Activism

Good News from Chevron: Toxic Waste Won't Make You Sick!

The thousands of communities living among Texaco’s decades-old toxic waste pits in the Amazon will be so relieved!  It turns out that despite decades of scientific research, long-term exposure to crude oil and drilling waste-waters causes no harm! In fact, you could use a little as facial moisturizer if you wanted.

Oh, I wish I was kidding. Even for a company like Chevron, so entrenched in its own lies and cover ups, this is a new low.

I have to be honest, it has taken me a few days to regain my bearings after watching  a Chevron executive explain to the American public on the CBS news program 60 Minutes that exposure to crude oil contamination and toxic wastewaters is no worse than the “naturally occurring” oils used in cosmetics.  Not that it was the first time I have heard Chevron try to make such erroneous claims, but this was truly absurd. If only it weren’t so tragic.

A couple of years ago I visited the Amazon villages that are the subject of the landmark case against Chevron – one oil-polluted village after another – meeting people who struggle everyday to find clean drinking water, and take care of ill family members whose health has been compromised by vast pollution of their lands.  In the Northern Oriente region of the country, communities have been rallying together across indigenous villages and campesino towns, to defend their way of life and seek justice.  These people deserve their day in court, and Chevron needs to stop obstructing the judicial process with blatantly dishonest propaganda.

Here are a few of the big lies Chevron told to 60 Minutes:

  1. The health impacts of oil used in cosmetics is equivalent to the health impacts of decades of exposure to the toxins left in the water and soil after Texaco dumped more than 19 billion gallons of toxic wastewaters and spilled 16.8 million gallons of crude oil into the Amazon forest.
  2.  

  3. In the thousands of soil and water samples they have taken in the Amazon there has been no detection of any type of toxin that is not naturally occurring in the environment…and that is dangerous to human health or the environment (this directly contradicts laboratory reports Chevron submitted as evidence in the trial, available as public records).
  4.  

  5. The judicial system in Ecuador cannot be trusted (the trial is currently taking place in Ecuador at Chevron’s request after the company asked that it be transferred out of U.S. federal court, where it was filed in 1993).
  6.  

  7. The case is frivolous (a court appointed expert estimates the damages at $27 billion – making it the largest environmental lawsuit in history).
  8.  

  9. Chevron can’t be sued because of a 1990s agreement Texaco struck with the Ecuadorian government to clean up some of the contaminated sites – sites that had been abandoned for years (the agreement with the Government did not cover claims of individual litigants).

Chevron has invested a lot of money and time to cover their tracks, and it appears that they will not back down anytime soon.  In the meantime, these Amazon communities are being slowly poisoned.  But what Chevron doesn’t seem to realize is that these communities have nothing left to lose, and they will never give up.  Just a few years ago few people in this country even knew about Chevron’s toxic legacy in Ecuador.  I hope that with increased media attention here in the U.S., they will find even deeper reserves of courage to keep up this fight and demand justice.

Many of the court documents can be found at www.chevrontoxico.com, and you can learn more about the history of oil in the Amazon and Amnesty’s work on this issue here.

Watch the 60 Minutes segment: