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In Bowoto v. Chevron, Nigerians lose first round but prove corporations can be held liable in U.S. courts for human rights abuses committed overseas

December 7, 2008
“Dredging by Chevron and its predecessor Gulf Oil have caused the salty water from the Gulf of Guinea to penetrate the freshwater creeks of the Niger Delta where villagers get their drinking water. As a result villagers are forced to spend hours in their canoes seeking drinking water.” – Chevron’s own Environmental Impact Statement
San Francisco – On Monday, Dec. 1, a U.S. district court jury acquitted San Ramon-based Chevron Corp. of complicity in human rights abuses. The case of Bowoto v. Chevron pitted Chevron and its relationship with the notoriously violent Nigerian police and military against Nigerians who peacefully protested the destruction of their environment and livelihood by Chevron’s oil production activities. Despite the verdict, corporate accountability advocates vowed to continue the struggle to bring Chevron and other corporations to justice for human rights violations they commit overseas.

“The fact that Bowoto v. Chevron made it this far in the process is a victory in and of itself, because it means that we have demonstrated that there is a clear pathway in the U.S. court system for holding corporations accountable to the rule of law. This is the first time a case against a company for aiding and abetting human rights violations overseas has even gone before a jury,” said Laura Livoti, founder of the group Justice in Nigeria Now.

It’s been almost 10 years since the shootings, killings and torture of unarmed, peaceful protesters on a Chevron oil platform off the Niger Delta in 1998 that led finally to the four weeks of trial in San Francisco that concluded with the jury finding Chevron not liable. While disappointed with the ruling, the plaintiffs have announced they will appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit.

Chevron drilling platform, site of protests
Bowoto v. Chevron concerns a 1998 incident in which Nigerian soldiers and police shot unarmed residents of the Ilaje community in southern Nigeria who were staging a nonviolent sit-in at Chevron’s offshore Parabe Platform to demand that Chevron change its practices. The young villagers were protesting Chevron’s destruction of their environment and traditional fishing and farming due to its oil activities and they sought compensation such as environmental reparations, jobs, medical assistance and scholarships.

This was the subject of three days of negotiation between their elders and Chevron Nigeria. Chevron officials reported to the U.S. Embassy that “the villagers were unarmed and the situation has remained calm since their arrival.”

On May 27, 1998, the protesters agreed to leave the platform the following morning. Early on the morning of the 28th, however, before the demonstrators had a chance to leave, Chevron summoned the notoriously violent Nigerian police and military and transported them in Chevron helicopters to the oil platform, where they opened fire. They were paid by Chevron, ferried to the platform by Chevron and supervised by Chevron personnel.

Lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto was shot multiple times.
Under Chevron’s supervision, the Nigerian military and police killed two villagers; others were shot – one in the back – and seriously wounded, including lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto, who was shot multiple times. Some were permanently injured. Many other villagers were detained by Nigerian authorities, including plaintiff Bola Oyinbo, who was tortured for his refusal to sign a false confession of piracy.

State Department bars Nigerian witnesses from entering U.S. to testify

The trial had been delayed a month after the State Department decided to deny visas to the Nigerian witnesses scheduled to testify, a decision decried by Dan Stormer, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. After suffering “a brutal attack at Chevron’s command,” he said, the Nigerian villagers “have worked for nine years to have their day in court. Now that the court has granted them a trial, it is disturbing to think that the U.S. Consulate might be playing politics with their visas.”

The lead plaintiff in the case, Larry Bowoto, has visited the United States three times without encountering visa problems. “But now that the trial is going forward, women and children whose husbands and fathers were tortured and killed, and individuals who witnessed the killings are being blocked,” added plaintiffs’ counsel Marco Simons, legal director of Earthrights International. “The U.S. government should be facilitating justice for human rights victims, not hindering it.”

“The visa denial has led to insinuations that Chevron pressured Nigerian and U.S. governments against allowing the witnesses to travel here. Chevron vehemently denies this,” reported blogger Kia Franklin. Although the judge “will let witnesses testify by video conference if they cannot obtain their visas by then, lawyers for the villagers say this is no substitute for testifying in person.”

How Nigerian villagers brought Chevron to trial

The jury was charged with deciding whether Chevron aided and abetted the Nigerian military, in violation of international law. The legal basis for the case was the Alien Tort Statute, a law that enables foreign victims of human rights violations by corporations to hold a U.S. corporation accountable in U.S. court for violations of the law of nations overseas.

The Alien Tort Statute has been used in cases charging Unocal with violating the human rights of Burmese villagers during the construction of an oil pipeline in Burma and charging Yahoo with giving the Chinese government information that allowed it to identify and arrest a Chinese dissident. Both of those cases ended in out-of-court settlements. Bowoto v. Chevron would have been the first time a U.S. corporation has been held liable by a jury in U.S. courts for aiding and abetting human rights abuses committed overseas.

“Although we are disappointed that the plaintiffs did not prevail in this case, we are heartened by the fact that we are now entering a new era in the United States and abroad where people have seen the results of unregulated corporate excess – in the financial system and elsewhere – and want corporations to be reined in to prevent serious harms. Bringing this case to trial in the United States is a step on the path to corporate accountability. In the near future, corporations will no longer have a free ride to operate with impunity in ways that are destructive and dehumanizing,” predicted Laura Livoti of Justice in Nigeria Now.

“Regardless of the verdict, the Bowoto v. Chevron case represented a watershed in terms of corporate accountability. The details of the Nigerian case – of human rights abuses in the global operations of the oil and gas industry – can be replicated many times over in different industrial sectors in different parts of the world. Now communities around the world know that they have recourse to legal mechanisms to bring corporations that violate their human rights to justice,” said Michael Watts, a professor at UC Berkeley and author of numerous books on the Niger Delta, including “Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta.”

Chevron’s greed, violence and contempt

Long after this incident, Chevron continued to use the Nigerian soldiers and police to provide security and repress opposition. A United Nations Special Rapporteur and Amnesty International reported that in 2005 Chevron security forces attacked civilians protesting Chevron’s activities. One person was shot and killed and at least 30 others were seriously injured.

On Nov. 20, 2008, while Chevron was presenting its case for the 1998 incident, Chevron in Nigeria was again complicit in the shooting of unarmed protesters, this time at their Escravos facility outside Warri, Nigeria.

As the trial went to the jury, Nigerian writer and professor Omoyele Sowore declared: “What shocked me most was that, even as the trial in San Francisco progressed, Chevron continued to extend its frontiers of violence against the inhabitants of Nigeria’s oil producing hub. Chevron’s egregious violence in Ilajeland occurred in 1998; that’s when the company took on peaceful unarmed villagers by using Nigeria’s aptly named ‘kill and go’ police.

“Secondly, Chevron arrogantly concealed the fact of its participation in murder and torture – until an American radio documentary exposed its involvement. Even now, the company is violently assaulting the truth and decency before an American audience and court by portraying the villagers of Ilajeland, innocent victims of Chevron’s corporate greed and callousness, as hostage takers.

“The jury’s duty is, in my mind, clear and historical. It ought to give justice to the people of Ilajeland and send a clear message to Chevron that the company must renounce violence as a means of doing business, that the company must never use direct or indirect violence as a tool to conduct business – now or at any time in the future.”

Will Chevron ever learn?

“Although the plaintiffs did not prevail today, Chevron now knows that it cannot conceal complicity in human rights abuses from public scrutiny,” said Richard Herz, an attorney at EarthRights International and co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “The fact that this case went to trial at all is a victory for human rights, and a tribute to the courage and persistence of these plaintiffs. We are hopeful that the legacy of this important case is that Chevron will change its behavior in the places where it operates.”

This case does not spell the end of Chevron’s trouble for its environmental and human rights violations. Another lawsuit against Chevron over its security practices in Nigeria is pending in California state court in San Francisco. Chevron has also been beset by charges from communities in Nigeria, Burma, Ecuador and elsewhere that its practices and activities have polluted rivers, destroyed livelihoods and food supplies, and led to widespread human rights abuses and other serious claims.

Chevron, then known as Unocal, previously settled a lawsuit in 2004 brought by victims of human rights abuses along Chevron’s Yadana pipeline in Burma. The giant company is currently accused in a court in Ecuador of massive environmental pollution of the Achuar communities in the Amazon.

War for oil and corporate greed

“The fish used for subsistence and trading have been decimated by the side effects of oil production: salinization, metals left in the creeks, high acidity of the water, increased sediment and stirring up of the creek bottoms.” – Chevron’s own Environmental Impact Statement
Chevron is California’s largest company and the third largest company in the U.S behind Walmart and Exxon Mobil. Chevron had record setting third quarter profits in 2008: $7.89 billion in profit – more than twice its take from the same period last year.

For the first nine months of 2008, the San Ramon company’s profit reached $19 billion, with sales of $222 billion. This amount already exceeds their total profits for 2007, which were $18.7 billion.

According to the Energy Information Administration, oil is Nigeria’s main export, accounting for 95 percent of the country’s revenues. In 2006, 42 percent of the country’s oil was exported to the United States. Approximately 25 percent of the oil consumed by Americans comes from Nigeria.

Remarked Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Nigerian-based Environmental Rights Action: “We are not surprised that Chevron continues with business as usual, treating communities in which they operate in inhumane ways and at best as nothing but irritants. The entire history of crude oil extraction in Nigeria has been strewn with dollars for the corporation and politicians but tears and blood for the local people. While old injustices are being deliberated on, new human rights abuses are being carried out in the murky creeks of the Niger Delta.”

First they poisoned our land; when we protested, they shot us

by Rick Herz and Marco Simons

In 1998, after receiving no response from Chevron to its letters detailing the problems facing the Ilaje communities, which included environmental and economic degradation, an Ilaje community organization decided to conduct a peaceful protest at Chevron’s Parabe oil platform.

On May 25, 1998, over 100 unarmed and peaceful Ilaje protestors went to the platform. Nigerian Navy and Mobile Police stationed at the platform, who were armed, allowed the protestors aboard. Armed Nigerian forces remained on the barge and in control at all times.

Workers and protestors played games, shared meals, watched videos, fished, chatted together and established friendships during the three-day peaceful protest. On May 27, the protestors informed Chevron they would leave the following day. The protesters began making preparations to leave.

The attack

Very early on the morning of May 28, 1998, when the protestors were just waking up, Chevron used its contracted helicopters to fly Nigerian security forces to Parabe. On board the helicopters were Nigerian military personnel, mobile police known as the “kill and go,” and Chevron’s top security officer in Nigeria.

The Nigerian troops opened fire on the unarmed civilians even before the helicopters landed. After they landed, Chevron’s security officer directed the soldiers’ activities using a bullhorn. The Nigerian forces shot and killed two people and shot and injured at least two more, including Larry Bowoto. One of the protesters who were killed was shot in the back. The individuals who were shot and killed posed no threat.

Many of the remaining protesters were subsequently imprisoned, tortured and beaten by Nigerian security forces. One of the protesters, Bola Oyinbo, was hung from a ceiling fan and repeatedly beaten to the point where he could not stand and blood was coming from his mouth.

Another described how, immediately after the shootings, the Nigerian troops beat him with a gun and a horse whip until he fell down and bled through his nose. This protester and others were then locked in a small container on the Chevron platform and held without food or water while Chevron officials looked on.

The protestors were then imprisoned, some for weeks or months, and kept in inhumane conditions. During their imprisonment, the beatings and torture continued. After the events concluded, Chevron paid the Nigerian police and soldiers for the services they had rendered.

Dead fish, dead trees, no water to drink

In an interview, Bola Oyinbo, one of the villagers beaten and tortured at Parabe, asked that people “go to Awoye community and see what they have done. Everything there is dead: mangroves, tropical forests, fish, the fresh water, wildlife etc. All killed by Chevron. …

“At Abiteye, Chevron discharges hot effluent into the creeks. Our people complain of dead creeks.” For their protests about the destruction of their traditional village economies and the natural environment, Bola Oyinbo, Larry Bowoto and other Ilaje villagers were murdered, tortured, shot and beaten by Chevron.

This story was compiled by the Bay View from several reports, most of them available at www.JusticeinNigeriaNow.org and www.EarthRights.org.

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