This blog will provide news and analysis on the Bowoto v. Chevron federal case, as well as a (hopefully) daily account of the trial proceedings. This is a landmark Alien Tort Statute case: At issue is the scope of US corporate accountability for international human rights violations.
The lawsuit against Chevron Corporation arises from a long-standing dispute between local villagers from the Niger River Delta in Nigeria and Chevron and its wholly-owned subsidiary in Nigeria. The residents of the Niger delta–a broad swath of wetlands home to the world’s largest mangrove forest–have seen their traditional lifestyle of subsistence fishing and farming undone by the pollution and salination of their waters. For years, Niger Delta residents and international environmental advocates have protested the environmental impact of Chevron’s oil extraction activities in the area. Deprived of their traditional means of livelihood, locals have endured a dire economic collapse. Many claim that Chevron should be responsible for reinvesting in the local community and sponsoring job-training and environmental recovery programs.
In 1998, a group of approximately 100 unarmed demonstrators from the Ilaje people occupied the Parabe offshore oil drilling platform to draw attention to their plight. While the protest itself was nonviolent, Chevron–through its Nigerian subsidiary–allegedly commissioned Nigerian armed forces to carry out a raid on the demonstrators. Chevron hired Nigerian police and soldiers, ferried them to the site, provided company helicopters and allegedly supervised the attack.
According to witnesses, the Nigerian armed forces arrived on May 28th, 1998–the morning after the protesters had already agreed to leave the platform–and opened fire on the crowd from Chevron security helicopters. Two protesters were shot in the back and killed and another two, including chief plaintiff Larry Bowoto were gravely injured.
Nigerian forces allegedly imprisoned, beat and tortured many of the surviving protesters. One of the Ilaje, Bola Oyinbo, was hung from a ceiling fan and repeatedly beaten. Another alleges that Nigerian troops beat him with a gun and a horse whip. This protester and others describe being locked in a small container on the Chevron platform and held without food or water. The protesters were then imprisoned–some for weeks or months–in inhumane conditions and subjected to beatings and torture. Following the events, Chevron paid the Nigerian police and soldiers for their services.
The original complaint was filed in 1999 in the U.S. District Court of Northern California in San Francisco. The four plaintiffs–Larry Bowoto, who was shot but survived; the family of Arolika Irowarinun, who was shot and killed; Bola Oyinbo, who was detained and tortured; and Bassey Jeje, who was attacked and injured–seek relief under the Alien Tort Statute.
The ATS (aka Alien Tort Claims Act) is a federal statute dating to 1798 which has taken on a new life as a powerful instrument for human rights civil litigation in the United States. The ATS permits foreign nationals to sue their malfeasors in U.S. federal courts for violations of international law, even if committed overseas.
Since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s 1980 ruling in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the ATS has been interpreted to apply to violations of core principles of human rights–considered part of customary international law — by state agents as well as by private individuals and corporations. Despite pressure from the Bush administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and multinational corporations to limit the scope of the statute, the Supreme Court upheld this interpretation of the ATS in its landmark Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain ruling.
In the federal suit, Chevron/Texaco Corporation is charged with extrajudicial killing; crimes against humanity; and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in the Niger Delta region.
A second suit was filed in California State court alleging that Chevron’s human rights violations and environmental degradation were in violation of the state’s unfair business practices law. Whereas the federal case seeks reparations for the victims of the Parabe attack, the state case seeks injunctive relief to change Chevron’s environmental and human rights practices.
The plaintiffs are represented by a legal team which includes the non-profits The Center for Constitutional Justice, EarthRights International and the Public Interest Lawyers Group.
A jury trial for the federal case is set for Monday, 27 October 2008.