It’s been clear for a long time that oil drilling in Ecuador’s rain forests dating back to the 1960s caused severe environmental damage. Yet for more than two decades a lawsuit against the lead drilling company, Texaco, and its new owner, Chevron, has meandered through Ecuadoran and U.S. courts.
Chevron, fighting a $19 billion judgment against it in Ecuador (later reduced to $9.5 billion), has sought to turn the tables on the plaintiffs and their U.S. lawyer, Steven Donziger. Recently, a U.S. court ruled in favor of the company, bolstering its refusal to pay anything in compensation.
The challenges faced by the plaintiffs in the Chevron case are, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception. It is often next to impossible to get a large transnational corporation to fully rectify serious environmental, labor or human rights abuses.
This frustrating reality is analyzed at great length in a new 300-page report from Amnesty International entitled Injustice Incorporated. The study begins with a primer on the relationship between corporations and international human rights law. Amnesty points out a key dilemma:
In some respects the corporate model is antithetical to the right to effective remedy; by admitting and addressing human rights abuses companies expose themselves to financial liability and reputational harm which shareholders (if not the directors and officers of the company themselves) see as entirely contrary to their interests.
Consequently, Amnesty points out, corporations tend to respond in ways that can compound the abuse: “deals with governments, denying victims access to vital information and using vastly greater financial means to delay and frustrate attempts to bring cases to court.”
Another problem highlighted by Amnesty is that large companies tend to be structured as a collection of separate legal entities whose liability is compartmentalized. While recognizing that it is not realistic to try to change this well-entrenched feature of corporation-friendly legal systems, Amnesty argues that “a counter-balance is needed to protect public interest and the international human rights framework.”
Amnesty amplifies its analysis through four detailed case studies. The first is the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe, in which a massive leak of toxic methyl isocyanate gas at a facility owned by a subsidiary of Union Carbide killed thousands and caused debilitating illnesses in tens of thousands more. Union Carbide paid what the victims considered grossly inadequate compensation while its CEO, with the help of the U.S. government, evaded extradition on criminal charges. Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, has refused to do anything more to help the victims.
The other situations examined in the Amnesty report are not as well known. The first is the Omai gold mine in Guyana, where the rupture of a tailings dam in 1995 spilled a vast quantity of effluent laced with cyanide and heavy metals into two rivers. The mining operation and the dam were run by Omai Gold Mines Limited, a company controlled at the time by Canada’s Cambior Inc. Soon after the accident, Cambior paid out modest amounts in compensation to local residents while vigorously contesting legal actions brought both in Guyana and in Canada. The company, which later merged with another Canadian firm, Iamgold, never paid out anything more.
Amnesty’s third case study deals with the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea, where for many years waste products were dumped into a river used by some 250 communities of indigenous people. In 1994 a lawsuit on behalf of local residents was filed in Australia, the home country of the company, Broken Hill Proprietary, which at the time was the primary operator of the mine. BHP, now part of BHP Billiton, eventually agreed to an out-of-court settlement that included the equivalent of $86 million in compensation but did not require it to build a long overdue tailings dam.
The final case study in the Amnesty report is also the most recent. In 2006 the Dutch oil trading company Trafigura signed a dubious agreement with a small firm in Ivory Coast that allowed it to dump petroleum waste products at various sites in the city of Abidjan. Thousands of residents exposed to the substances suffered from nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, stinging eyes and burning skin. At least 15 were reported to have died. Trafigura reached a settlement that Amnesty labels as insufficient.
Amnesty finishes its report with an analysis of what it calls the three biggest obstacles in such cases: the legal hurdles to extraterritorial action, the lack of information needed to support claims for adequate reparations and the unwillingness of the governments of the countries involved to hold foreign corporations to full account. While offering a set of reforms aimed at alleviating these challenges, Amnesty harbors no illusions about the difficulty of bringing about such changes. Legal systems, it admits, exist primarily to protect powerful corporate interests.