Bowoto v Chevron Human Rights Case Could Set Legal Precedent With Environmental Applicability

anti chevron protest photo

Anti-Chevron protest, photo: Rainforest Action Network.

With all the focus on the US presidential race, thankfully coming to a close tomorrow, here’s another one of those things you’d be forgiven for not noticing, but which has some potentially great legal implications for the environment and human rights.

Fellow TreeHugger Alex Smith wrote about the Bowoto v Chevron human rights case beginning in federal court in San Francisco last week, but here’s some more background on the case, as well as the potential legal implications:Larry Bowoto Shot, Wounded by Nigerian Military

In 1998, Larry Bowoto and about 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. Allegedly acting at the direction of Chevron, soldiers detained and tortured several other protestors, after which company personnel paid them for their services. (Huffington Post)

Case Originally Filed Nine Years Ago
The case was originally filed in 1999, but is now just coming to trial. The green connection for this is the legal precedent it could set. The civil suit Bowoto v Chevron is being brought about under the Alien Tort Claims Act (a law which dates back to 1789), under which foreign nationals can bring civil cases before US courts arising from violations of law or treaty occurring anyplace in the world.

Could Be First Time US Company Held Liable for Human Rights Violations Overseas
If found in Mr Bowoto’s favor, this would be the first time a US company was held liable for human rights violations which occurred because of its foreign operations. Potentially (and I don’t have a specific incident in mind in saying this) other companies could be held liable for violations of human rights or environmental law caused by their actions anywhere in the world.

Actions by multinational firms such as privatization of water, destruction of ecosystems due to mining, or air pollution at factories under contract overseas could potentially all be seen as violations of human rights obligations and theoretically the company in question could be sued in a US court.

The Economist has some more on the legal implications of this case, objections to the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, and says that nearly all Alien Tort Claims brought against companies (including last year’s case against Yahoo for assistance it provided to the Chinese government in the arrest of a political dissident there) are settled under confidential terms rather than proceeding to trial.

Myths & Facts in Bowoto v Chevron
EarthRights International has provided a 'Myths and Facts' sheet about the case, for those wanting some more information.

I admit that somewhere firmly entrenched in me is a belief that when someone alleges human rights violations against a large corporation, especially in a place like Nigeria or wherever oil, mining, timber operations are involved, that those violations probably occurred. But, in the interest of fairness, I should point out that EarthRights is co-counsel for Mr Bowoto in this case.

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