Geneva, Switzerland – Ecuadorian indigenous villagers who braved death threats in their battle with Chevron have teamed up with a leading international organization to demand that the United Nationsblock the oil giant from continuing an intimidation campaign targeting the human rights advocates who obtained a legally-binding $10 billion environmental pollution judgment against the company.
Chevron’s strategy of using espionage and threats to target the villagers and their lawyers as retaliation for winning the historic judgment violates international human rights law and is part of a well-financed campaign by the oil giant to obtain impunity for dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the forest, said representatives of the villagers in a letter to the international body seeking an investigation. Chevron’s dumping decimated indigenous groups and caused an outbreak of cancer, killing or threatening to kill thousands of rainforest inhabitants, according to the findings of the trial court in Ecuador.
Ecuador’s Supreme Court in 2013 unanimously affirmed the judgment in a 5-0 decision that meticulously documented the presence of life-threatening toxins at hundreds of abandoned Chevron well sites in the jungle. The villagers first filed their claims in 1993 in New York but the case was shifted at Chevron’s request to Ecuador, where the company accepted jurisdiction.
After Chevron lost the case in Ecuador – largely based on its own evidence – the company refused to pay the judgment, with its lead lawyer vowing to fight the villagers “until hell freezes over” and beyond. Chevron also did nothing when lawyers for the communities, including prominent Ecuadorian human rights advocates Alejandro Ponce Villacis and Pablo Fajardo Mendoza, sought protection after being subjected to death threats and other forms of harassment during the litigation.
(See here for how the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights granted protection to the human rights defenders fighting Chevron in Ecuador after they received death threats and other forms of harassment. See this Chevron whistleblower video on how the company’s scientists tried to defraud Ecuador’s courts.)
The letter from the villagers was addressed to Dr. Michael Forst, a French national who is the Special Rapporteur at the United Nations charged with protecting human rights defenders. Human Rights Defenders are individuals and organizations that fight to protect internationally recognized human rights, including the rights of people harmed by the dumping of toxic waste into the environment.
Chevron’s “strategy subjects the [villagers] to severe intimidation, physical and emotional harassment, damage to reputation, financial burden to the point of bankruptcy, and even fear of trumped-up penal consequences,” said the letter, which was signed by Melik Ozden, Director of CETIM, a well-known Geneva-based development organization founded in 1970 which has official consultative status with the United Nations.
“We submit that your office has a duty to remind the countries involved that international human rights law obliges them to ensure that their systems of justice have safeguards sufficient to prevent powerful actors like multinational corporations from manipulating court processes in order to intimidate or retaliate against opponents at the cost of freedom of expression and other human rights,” said the letter.
Aaron Page, a human rights defender and lawyer who represents the Ecuadorian villagers, urged Forst to act on the letter, which was sent in November.
“The extrajudicial abuse suffered by the human rights defenders in Ecuador is bad enough,” said Page, who also signed the letter. “But this latest abuse, which manipulates court systems to serve Chevron’s aim of demonizing its adversaries, is particularly insidious. We urge the Rapporteur not to shy away from this issue just because institutions of a powerful country like the United States are involved.”
Steven Donziger, a U.S.-based legal advisor to the communities since the inception of the case, also urged Dr. Forst to act. “Chevron’s crimes, fraud, and retaliatory litigation in more than 30 courts around the world might constitute one of the greatest abuses of the civil justice system ever,” said Donziger, a primary target of Chevron’s intimidation campaign.
“We respectfully call on Dr. Forst to focus his attention immediately on the thousands of vulnerable Ecuadorians who live under an effective death sentence because of Chevron’s toxic dumping and its refusal to comply with court orders,” he added. “Chevron’s attempts to silence the very people it poisoned, and to deny them access to justice, are gross violations of international human rights law.”
The U.N. designated Dr. Forst to protect human rights defenders from harassment and retaliation from governments and private corporations. As Special Rapporteur, Forst acts as an independent expert appointed to investigate complaints and report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. He has the right to pressure governments and non-state actors – including private corporations – as part of his mandate.
The U.N. letter explains how Chevron began an avowed “demonization” campaign against adversary counsel intended to drive them from the case so the company’s victims would be left defenseless. Chevron’s tactics included manufacturing evidence, bribing witnesses, pressuring Ecuador’s President to quash the case, paying for testimony, filing numerous retaliatory cases, and using dozens of private investigators “to spy on the defenders every move, including their privileged conversations with their attorneys.”
Paul Paz y Miño of the environmental and human rights NGO Amazon Watch, which has helped the communities hold Chevron accountable, also urged the United Nations to get involved.
“We estimate that Chevron has spent well over $2 billion to pay 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to battle these impoverished communities and their lawyers using unethical and illegal tactics,” Paz y Miño said. “Despite Chevron’s massive expenditures, these heroic communities have won. They must be allowed to collect their judgment to pay for a full scale clean up. The United Nations has an obligation to play a major role to ensure that the fundamental human rights of those who won the judgment are protected.”
The term “human rights defender” was adopted by the United Nations in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Charter, considered the seminal human rights document in the world. The right of human rights defenders – including Ecuadorian community leaders and their lawyers – to advocate freely without retaliation is in itself an international human rights that Chevron has violated, according to the letter.
For a U.N. document explaining the special protections provided under international law to human rights defenders, see here.
(For background, see how Chevron’s star witness Alberto Guerra presented false testimony and perjured himself; how Chevron continues to pay the salary and income taxes of Guerra after he was caught lying; how New York human rights lawyer Steven Donziger and others have been targeted by Chevron with an espionage campaign; how Chevron used corruption to try to sabotage the Ecuador trial; and this blog for the numerous arrogant and racist comments made by Chevron officials during the Ecuador litigation.)
Chevron has a long history of targeting its adversaries on the Ecuador litigation with intimidation and threats, according to a lengthy evidentiary record compiled by the villagers.
Chevron tried, in violation of international law, to deny the right of the villagers to access the judicial system by trying to sabotage the legal proceedings in Ecuador, according to this sworn affidavit by Ecuadorian human rights defender Juan Pablo Saenz and this legal brief filed by Deepak Gupta, counsel to Donziger.
A summary of one aspect of Chevron’s retaliatory litigation – accusing the Ecuador case of being a “racketeering” scheme – can be read here. Chevron also sued to get the email accounts of more than 100 journalists, activists and allies of the villagers in a naked attempt to intimidate them from helping the communities, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Chevron is now playing a jurisdictional shell game with courts around the world to try to block the villagers from seizing company assets in Canada and Brazil to force compliance with the Ecuador judgment. Chevron stripped its assets from Ecuador and stood by silently as lawyers for the villagers were subjected to death threats and other forms of intimidation, as outlined in a previous complaint to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
Donziger, targeted by Chevron with what is probably the most well-financed corporate retaliation campaign in history (see here for background), indicated that one of the main culprits in the oil giant’s strategy is its controversial outside law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (GDC). GDC was found to have falsified evidence on behalf of Chevron and other clients, as this background document explains. GDC lawyers coached Chevron witness Guerra for 53 consecutive days before he presented his false testimony; more recently, a U.S. federal judge excoriated the firm for destroying documents related to an internal investigation of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the Bridge-gate scandal.
CETIM’s involvement in the letter to the United Nations is part of a growing wave of international support for the villagers. In the U.S., 43 human rights and environmental groups led by Amazon Watchjoined the villagers in condemning Chevron CEO John Watson’s retaliatory litigation tactics. Internationally, law scholars from around the world filed a legal brief criticizing Chevron for trying to use a U.S. trial court to undermine the Ecuador judgment. In numerous other countries, communities have protested the environmental damage caused by Chevron’s use of sub-standard operational practices in Ecuador and elsewhere.