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.


Davos and the Measures of Success

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

The oil continues to leak into the Niger Delta, fouling the water, killing the fish and slowly poisoning the people who live there. It has been that way for decades.

The spills are the legacy of a half-century of exploration and development in the oil-rich region. They have devastated the lives of local residents who rely on the area’s resources for their food, water and livelihoods and left many wondering about the future.

Oil spills in the Niger Delta have devastated the lives of local residents © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

Arguments swirl around who is to blame. Residents say oil companies, including Shell, and the government, which owns about half of the oil industry, are responsible. The companies and the government counter that the spills are due to sabotage and theft, the result of armed raids and people stealing oil from the lines.

Demands by Delta communities and activists for information, independent systems for environmental clean-up and compensation, and for the oil companies to be held to account have been largely ignored by the government and dismissed as unnecessary, or unworkable, by the companies.

Incredibly, despite the obvious environmental devastation, there is almost no independent monitoring of food safety, health impacts or water quality. Companies like Shell effectively run the oil spill investigation and compensation processes, with a lack of transparency causing frequent conflict with and between oil-impacted communities.


Shell Accused Over Misleading Figures on Nigeria Oil Spills

Shell has no compensation liability when spills are declared 'sabotage' © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International today filed an official complaint against oil giant Shell for breaches of basic standards for responsible business set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Amnesty and Friends of the Earth believe that Shell breached OECD guidelines by using discredited and misleading information, in order to blame the majority of oil pollution in the Niger Delta region on sabotage and criminal activity.

In the mid 1990s Shell accepted that much of the oil pollution in the Niger Delta was due to the company’s own failures.  However, Shell now blames sabotage by communities and criminals for most of the problem, citing misleading figures that purport to show as much as 98% of oil spills being caused by sabotage.

While sabotage is a problem in the Niger Delta, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth have repeatedly challenged Shell’s use of such figures, which have been strongly criticized by environmental groups and communities.  Under Nigerian law, when spills are classified as being the result of sabotage, Shell has no liability with respect to compensation for damage done to people or their livelihoods.

Shell’s figures are totally lacking in credibility.  Widespread oil pollution is a key problem caused by oil industry in the Niger Delta, but the oil spill investigation system is totally lacking in independence.


Soccer, Terrorism, Repression and Constitutions in Angola

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

Angolan president Eduardo dos Santos

The new decade started off with a bang in Angola-literally. Fireworks exploded in the night sky at the opening games of the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament on January 10th; and, sadly, gunfire shattered the day as the Togo soccer team was attacked on their way to participate in the tourney.

The attack on the Togo national team occurred at they traveled through the Cabinda province. Cabinda is a small spit of land separated from the northern territorial borders of Angola by the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is rich in oil and struggled with a separatist movement for many years now. Those who live in the region wish for autonomy and there is an armed rebel faction, the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Togolese team.

However, there are many individuals in the Cabinda region engaging in peaceful measures to demand autonomy. Journalists, lawyers, priests and citizens argue for the right of self determination. The Angolan government has harshly suppressed these individuals, denying them right of free expression and association by dispersing peaceful protests, arresting individuals and banning organizations. One journalist, Fernando Lelo, was imprisoned following an unfair trial because of his criticisms of the president.

In the wake of the Togo bus attack, the Angolan government has used anti-terrorism policies as an excuse to crack down further on peaceful activists in the region. Francisco Luemba, a prominent lawyer and former member of banned human rights organization Mpalabanda, was arrested on January 17th and charged with crimes against the state. Mpalabanda, the only human rights organization previously operating in Cabinda, was banned in 2006 following charges that the organization incited violence and hatred.


Import Human Rights to Angola

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Children living in the ruins of destroyed houses in Luanda, Angola.

Angola is experiencing a major revitalization as it slowly recovers from a devastating 27 year civil war that finally ended in 2002. The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off  (sorry for the soccer pun) this week: a biennial continent-wide tournament, and this year a rousing prelude to the World Cup occurring in June in South Africa. Angola is also one of the world’s top twenty crude oil exporters and a member of OPEC. This revenue stream elevates Angola’s stature as a major economic player both globally and in the region, as nations compete for Angolan oil exports.

These resulting economic ties also create political relationships. Stay with me, I am getting to my point, I promise. Angola ranks sixth in the list of countries importing oil into the United States. This means the US relies on Angola and Angola relies on the US. Thus each is in the position to influence the other on a whole host of issues. And so we have arrived: Angola is up in February for its turn under the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review (UN-UPR).

The UN-UPR is a process by which each member state’s human rights record is scrutinized by it’s peers. All member nations are subject to this review every four years, during which time other nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) can raise concerns, ask questions and make recommendations on how to improve human rights conditions. One of the concerns about the process, which has already played out during other state’s reviews, is peer nations won’t really raise the tough issues. Rather they lob soft balls (or maybe soccer balls?) for fear of damaging economic relationships or labeling as a hypocrit because of the peer nation’s own human rights record.

But it is the duty and responsibility of UN member states to hold each other accountable, and it is our onus as global citizens to make sure our governments step up to the plate. So we are calling on the US State Department to not go easy on Angola because we want it’s oil exports. Instead, we are demanding the US help ensure human rights are imported into Angola via the UPR process.

There are three major areas we call on Secretary Clinton to raise during the UPR process: forced evictions, the safety of human rights defenders and protections of freedom of expression and association. These are all areas of serious concern in Angola; people are rendered homeless for political and/or economic gain, human rights defenders experience repression and beatings as they work to hold the government accountable and journalists and citizens are imprisoned for speaking out and demanding positive change.

So stand up as a global citizen and encourage all UN member nations to not give Angola an easy pass under the UN-UPR next month and tell Secretary Clinton that the US must do it’s part! Economics is supply and demand. Instead of only demanding oil come out of Angola, let’s supply the tools to encourage human rights to come in!

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

Peru Update: Steps Taken Toward Dialogue After Clashes

International pressure on the Peruvian authorities has brought some progress for Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon. An Amnesty International delegation will visit the country to assess the situation.

Since the violent incidents which took place in Bagua, in the Peruvian Amazon, on 5-6 June, the authorities have taken some steps to establish a dialogue with Indigenous Peoples and open investigations into the events which led to the death of at least 14 police officers and 10 demonstrators. However, concerns remain about allegations of excessive use of force, torture and ill-treatment of detainees and insufficient legal assistance.

An Amnesty International delegation will visit Peru between 12 and 25 July in order to evaluate recent developments and the current situation. After the mission, new information and strategies for action will be circulated.

Many thanks to those who took action!

Big Oil Finally Pays in Nigeria: A Victory for Corporate Accountability

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

poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa during a rally on the Port Harcourt highway 10 November 2005

An Ogoni man carries a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa at a rally in Nigeria, November 2005 ©AFP/Getty Images

My mom called me to tell me that a settlement was reached in the Wiwa v. Shell case.  She saw a report on the nightly television news earlier this week. That’s how I knew this story was really big news.  In Tuesday’s Guardian (UK), Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. talks about the families’ decision to accept the settlement with Shell.  He says, the choice “enabled [the plaintiffs] to advertise the settlement as a living, breathing example of how and why the commitment to peace, non-violence and dialogue is the best way to resolve the challenges in the Niger Delta.” What better advertisement than international news coverage?

When I explain the work Amnesty International members undertake, I point out that there are different levels of success. Our letter writing can result in the release of a prisoner of conscience.  Meetings with diplomats and elected officials can lead to the passage of critical legislation in support of human rights. Many of us wrote countless letters to Nigerian government officials when Ken Saro-Wiwa was adopted as a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s.  After his execution, we continued to work closely with the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S., vowing to “Never Forget” Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9. We held ceremonies – outside the United Nations, in front of the Nigerian Consulate in D.C., and in our communities – to rename streets Ken Saro-Wiwa Place or Ogoni 9 Square in their honor.

Sometimes we don’t immediately see the success we hoped for.  And while Amnesty International has not participated in the lawsuits brought against Shell, our continued work on corporate accountability issues will benefit from Wiwa v. Shell’s successes. Michael D. Goldhaber’s A Win for Wiwa, A Win for Shell, A Win for Corporate Human Rights at The AmLaw Daily offers a comprehensive summary of the benchmarks achieved through the settlement.  Stay tuned for the next big news story, we’re well on our way towards more success.

Learn more about how Amnesty works to promote corporate accountability for human rights.

Protests in Peru Over "Oil Laws" Leave Dozens Dead

Protestors demand Peruvian President Garcia's resignation following deadly clashes between Amazon indigenous groups and security forces in Bagua © AFP/Getty Images

Protestors demand Peruvian President Garcia's resignation after deadly clashes between Amazon indigenous groups and security forces © AFP/Getty Images

Peru’s Congress temporarily suspended two Amazon investment laws – dubbed the “Law of the Jungle” – that triggered violent clashes that left at least 30 protesters and 24 people police officers dead last weekend. The controversial laws made oil drilling, mining and logging – including on indigenous land – much more accessible for corporations.

Indigenous protesters say that the laws, being passed in part to comply with a trade agreement with the U.S., weaken their rights to land they have inhabited for hundreds of years.  One of the laws removed more than 170,000 square miles of Peruvian jungle from the government’s list of protected lands.

The situation continues to be volatile and the human rights of injured and detained protestors remain under attack.  On June 5, the National Police forcibly removed Indigenous protesters who had blocked the approach road to the town of Bagua.  At least 30 protesters and 24 police officers were left dead, as well as over 200 people injured, including 31 police officers, as a result of this action.  And the number of protesters killed is feared to be higher still.

According to local sources, some of the protesters who have been injured are not receiving adequate medical care since local health centers are not well equipped. And at least 79 demonstrators, including several minors, have been taken into police and army custody. It is unclear how they are being treated, what they have been charged with, and whether they have access to medical care or legal assistance.  Amnesty International is demanding protection for protestors.