Monday, October 27, 2008

Landmark Human Rights Litigation has Chevron on the Run

Just in: A landmark human rights trial, Bowoto v. Chevron, has finally begun in federal court in San Francisco, and a handful of Nigerian villagers have Chevron's corporate brain trust scrambling to defend itself.

[Case background excerpted from Firger's blog on the case from this morning on the Huffington Post - Landmark Human Rights Trial Bowoto v. Chevron Set To Begin October 27]

Bowoto v. Chevron began in 1998 when Larry Bowoto and approximately 100 other community members staged a peaceful protest at one of Chevron's offshore oil platforms, demanding a meeting between company representatives and village elders to negotiate for the job training and education programs they had been promised in exchange for the severe environmental harms they had been forced to endure. They were unarmed, and after receiving word that Chevron would attend a meeting in a nearby village the following day, they prepared to leave the platform peacefully.

Before they could do so, three company helicopters carrying Nigerian military personnel swooped down on the platform and opened fire, killing two people and injuring several others, including Bowoto. Though Chevron claims the soldiers were firing in self defense, at least one of the men killed was shot in the back (my edit - AMW). Allegedly acting at the direction of Chevron, soldiers detained and tortured several other protestors, after which company personnel paid them for their services.

Bowoto and his co-plaintiffs filed their suit in 1999 in United States District Court in San Francisco. After nearly a decade of legal wrangling, the case now stands as an important milestone in the history of international human rights law:, a U.S. company could potentially be held liable in U.S. courts for gross human rights abuses committed in their overseas operations.

[End excerpt]

The case finally began today, and it appeared that Chevron was feeling the heat. Chevron turned out in force for today's first hearing, dispatching at least a dozen different lawyers and public relations personnel, including Vice-President and General Counsel Charles James, to the courthouse to combat the threat posed by these villagers. It was a surreal experience sitting in the courtroom and watching the contrast between the plaintiffs and the defendants: Larry Bowoto and his compatriots sitting calmly in their multicolored traditional garb contrasting sharply with Charles James and his lawyers and their expensive suits.

And the Chevron P.R. machine was in full swing, with familiar pro-Chevron blogger "Zennie62" attending the trial and meeting with Chevron's P.R. people immediately – at least until Judge Susan Illston issued a gag-order ordering both sides to refrain from issuing any statements or commenting on the case (let's see if that keeps Zennie quiet…Zennie has long been known to be a mouthpiece for Chevron in the 'blogosphere' and he has been under attack along with San Francisco writer Pat Murphy for being paid by Chevron to post blogs that mysteriously get google-bombed to the top of search engines. Neither Chevron, Murphy or Zennie has ever denied they get paid by Chevron even though they don't disclose such payments on their blogs.)

Judge Illston's gag order was the source of the biggest drama of the day – in a stunning setback for Chevron, Judge Illston forced Chevron's lead attorney to admit that Chevron has been paying Google to give priority to the website that give's Chevron's side of the story (purchasing "sponsored links" so that anyone searching "bowoto" or "bowoto chevron" would have the search send the user to Chevron's website first), then ordering Chevron to take down their links and stop any effort to manipulate search results by paying for sponsored-links, indicating that she was "disturbed" by Chevron's attempt to manipulate public perception of the trial.

I don't have any connection to Nigeria, and I don't have any ties to the plaintiffs, but as lawyer involved in the Amazon Defense Coalition, I think it's important to keep an eye on Chevron's rising human rights problems. Unfortunately, the tactics that Chevron has employed in this case – deny, delay, confuse, deny, attack, delay, and deny again – are all too familiar to anyone who has watched Chevron's attempts to deal with their rising human rights problems around the globe. From Nigeria to Ecuador to Burma, it is becoming clear that Chevron has a major problem when it comes to human rights and environmental policies – hopefully cases like Bowoto and the ongoing litigation in Ecuador will force the company to finally realize how out of step it is with the rest of the world and even its competitors in the oil industry, many of whom have developed sensible human rights policies while Chevron falls behind. The Amazon Defense Coalition released a press release on Monday about precisely this issue.

In any event, this case is just getting started – we'll be keeping an eye on it for the rest of the week. Stay tuned, and we'll keep you abreast of the drama as this landmark human rights trial unfolds…