Oil giant gains legal victory but remains beset by claims of human rights abuses

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New Internationalist

'Chevrong'

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Chevron Oil has recently been cleared in a US court of any liability for the May 1998 shooting and killing of protesters from the Ilaje community in the Niger Delta. The unarmed Ilaje had occupied Chevron's offshore Parabe Platform for 3 days protesting over compensation for environmental damage and demanding jobs for local people. The Nigerian army who were flown to the platform on Chevron helicopters and paid by Chevron to disperse protesters, killed two people and wounded many others. Other protesters were rounded up by the army and were later tortured.

Although this initial case has been lost (the plaintiffs will appeal), this puts the pressure on multinationals as it sends out a clear message that they will be pursued in the law courts of their home countries in order to hold them to account for their obnoxious behaviour towards local communities.

'This is the first time a case against a company for aiding and abetting human rights violations overseas has even gone before a jury. And 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,' said Laura Livoti, founder of the group 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.

Even as the jury was sitting in the Bowoto v Chevron trial, Chevron Nigeria was attacking villagers in Aruntan-Ugborodo in Itsekiriland also in the Delta region. According to a personal testimony recorded by Friends of the Earth Nigeria:

Some time last week [Thursday 20 November 2008] community people comprising about 15-20 women, 8 children and 25 youths embarked on a peaceful protest to CNL [Chevron Nigeria Limited] Tank Farm - a stone's throw from our homes. We were demanding 'common job' slot for our youths, awarding of contract to deserving indigents and for the protection of our shore lines from coastal erosion that is encroaching into our homes.

We dressed in white singlet [T-shirts] and carried placards. No guns, no machete and no form of weapons of mass destruction were on us. We were shocked to see the JTF [Joint Task Force] officers guarding the CNL Tank Farm releasing gunshot sporadically on us.

We took cover for our dear lives. Several of our youths had gunshot wounds and two others in their home received serious wounds from the stray shots.

This recent decision to acquit Chevron of any responsibility in the deaths and injuries to people in Nigeria tells me that the only interest of the jury seems to support the extraction of oil by any means necessary.

Meanwhile Obama has appointed another corporate defender, Chevron director Marine Gen. James Jones, to his cabinet following in the footsteps of another famous Chevron director Ms Condoleezza Rice (in whose honour Chevron famously named an oil tanker). Political commentator Amy Goodman writes:

But what of a Chevron director high up in the West Wing? Obama's attacks on John McCain during the campaign included a daily refrain about the massive profits of ExxonMobil, as if that was the only oil company out there. Chevron, too, has posted mammoth profits. Chevron was also a defendant in a federal court case in San Francisco related to the murder, 10 years ago, of two unarmed, peaceful activists in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

Big Oil in Nigeria

Oil and oil companies are central to the political economy of Nigeria. Since the discovery of this resource in 1958 billions of dollars have been stolen by corrupt leaders and officials, in collaboration with the multinational oil companies Shell, Agip, Elf, Chevron and Exxon-Mobil. The relationship between these oil companies and the Nigerian state is a complex and shifting one that goes back to the colonial period. Initially the oil companies were completely in control. The Mineral Oil Ordinance and the Petroleum Profit Tax Ordinance of 1959 enabled oil companies to keep a disproportionately large share of oil profits. The major beneficiaries of this policy were British Petroleum and Royal Dutch/Shell, companies in which Britain had substantial interests. After Nigerian independence in 1960, the monopoly of Shell and BP was broken by the entry of other oil multinationals. As the Nigerian state became more and more dependent on oil it sought ways to strengthen its relationship with the oil companies and at the same time, through a series of repressive decrees, increase its control over the communities of the Niger Delta where the oil was located.

In exchange for the oil and gas that is removed from the Niger Delta, the oil companies with the support of the Nigerian state and its military forces have left behind ecological destruction, towns and communities reduced to rubble, poverty, prostitution, death by fire, murder and rape. The attacks against communities continues to this day as the environmental destruction continues unabated.

But the pressure is not off Chevron (along with Texaco with whom it is merged) - they are also facing another suit for abuses by its security forces in Nigeria plus they face a class action suit for polluting the Ecuadorean Amazon.

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