By Paul Paz y Miño
On Tuesday, human rights lawyer Steven Donziger woke up free, marking the closure of the latest chapter in Chevron’s scheme to evade justice for contaminating the Amazon rainforest. Now all eyes turn back to the true crime – Chevron’s contamination from 1964-1992 in Ecuador and the company’s efforts to escape accountability. After the seemingly-bottomless money the oil giant spent on high-priced lawyers and PR firms, Chevron has actually gained nothing in its efforts to change the narrative of its toxic dumping in Ecuador. It failed to undermine the Ecuadorian people’s calls for justice.
As we all know: Chevron, formerly Texaco, is responsible for deliberately dumping at least 16 billion gallons of toxic oil waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964-1992 while it was the sole operator of oil fields there, creating an environmental disaster and causing decades of cancer and reproductive harm. Since then, Chevron has used its money and political influence to escape accountability, despite the fact that it lost a lengthy and decisive trial in Ecuador in 2011 and was ordered to pay $9.5 billion to clean up. It has deployed an array of tricks to escape justice — including bribery, intimidation, harassment, attacks on the free press, legal threats, lawsuits, and smear campaigns.
Now, Steven Donziger is finally free of home detention after serving more than two and a half years in confinement for a petty misdemeanor contempt of court charge, which carries a maximum sentence of six months. Donziger was the victim of what’s been called the “first corporate criminal prosecution” in the United States: He was prosecuted not by the government, but by a private corporate law firm with direct ties to Chevron. The lead prosecutor was Rita Glavin of Seward & Kissel, and it was revealed during the trial that Chevron’s firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP donated hundreds, if not thousands of hours of several partners’ time to assist Glavin in the prosecution.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined Donziger’s detention to be a violation of his human rights and of international legal norms. It demanded the Biden administration not only release him, but compensate him and launch an investigation into the circumstances that led to his detention — we hope that the Biden administration will eventually follow this recommendation and compensate Donziger for his wrongful confinement. The decision also called on the U.S. government to swiftly enact anti-SLAPP laws to protect those who speak out against corporate crimes. Members of Congress have sent several letters regarding this case to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and President Biden.
In Ecuador, this case exemplifies the level of impunity enjoyed by U.S. corporations, and specifically oil companies, and the complete lack of respect they have for the lives of Indigenous people and frontline communities where they carry out their operations. In the U.S., this case exposes the staggering level of corruption and control the fossil fuel industry has over U.S. courts and government agencies (as well as its effective intimidation of corporate media).
But as we turn to a new and better chapter, and rightly return the world’s focus to justice for Ecuador, let’s tally up all that Chevron “gained” for its efforts to criminalize, demonize, and silence Steven Donziger.
- 68 Nobel Laureates came together to demand Steven Donziger’s freedom, and that the Biden administration investigate the prosecution against him
- More than 100 civil society organizations, including Amnesty International and Amazon Watch, demanded that President Biden pardon Donziger
- Members of the European Parliament called out this case as a serious human rights concern and asked the U.S. Congress to investigate
- More than 200 lawyers filed a judicial complaint against Judge Kaplan over his abusive targeting of Donziger
- U.S. war crimes ambassador Stephen Rapp, along with a team that monitored criminal contempt proceedings against Donziger, found Donziger’s human rights were repeatedly violated by a court that displayed judicial bias
- Prominent lawyers and social justice leaders testified in defense of Steven’s character at his disbarment hearing, after which, the NY Bar Referee actually said Donziger should have his license reinstated immediately (the referee was later overruled by the New York State Bar Association)
- More than a dozen U.S. members of Congress have spoken out on Donziger’s behalf, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who grilled Chevron CEO Mike Wirth during a House Oversight Committee hearing. Tlaib demanded to know when Chevron will pay the $50 billion it owes in 31 countries where it has broken the law, including Ecuador.
- Chevron’s Global Destruction report – detailing cases brought against it in over thirty countries – was not only entered into the Congressional record, but is the focus of a shareholder resolution to be voted on at the company’s annual meeting. The resolution also criticizes Chevron management for approving a bribe for federal witness Alberto Guerra – whose testimony was key to Chevron’s widely discredited RICO victory – and for failing to respond to questions from Rep. Tlaib.
- Law Students for Climate Accountability launched their “Done with Dunn” campaign calling on law students to boycott working for Chevron’s firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (GDC), and the License to Spill campaign at Protect the Protest released a report documenting the firm’s “Unacceptable Shenanigans.”
However, in dark news for defenders of human rights, a former partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Jennifer Rearden, who aided in the prosecution of Steven Donziger, was renominated by Biden to be a federal judge in the Southern District of New York and advanced unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, over the loud objections of well over 100 grassroots organizations and climate activists. Rearden’s lifetime of legal work displays extreme loyalty to corporations and private interests over the needs of children, people with disabilities, the environment, Indigenous communities, and workers.
On May 21, 2022, activists around the world will mark the 9th annual Global Anti-Chevron Day, and Amazon Watch will support with actions at Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California. Five days later, Chevron will hold its annual shareholder meeting. And going forward, Rep. Rashida Tlaib has pledged to continue hauling the CEOs of oil giants like Chevron before Congress, to hold them accountable for the climate crisis and environmental disasters they have caused, covered up, and perpetuated.
Every person, organization, and official who acted to defend Steven Donziger over the past three years made clear he was unfairly targeted for his successful work to hold Chevron accountable for its crimes in the Amazon. Over this time, Chevron was unable to silence our rallying cry for justice for Chevron’s crimes in Ecuador and an end to retaliation against human rights defenders like Steven Donziger. After all, as Rep. Tlaib said in support of Donziger: “Indigenous Amazon communities won one of the most important class action lawsuits ever, holding Chevron accountable for environmental devastation with nearly $10 billion in damages, and ever since, Chevron has sought to use its money and power to illegitimately nullify this result.”
All of its money and power are failing Chevron. Rather than scare us away, Chevron has reinvigorated the fight for justice. As Rep. Jim McGovern wrote just yesterday, “Chevron has blood on their hands, and we will keep fighting to hold them accountable!”
Credit: Amazon Watch