In a stinging rebuke to a small army of progressive American academics, journalists, foundation grantmakers, and others who've promoted the case for years, a San Francisco jury has cleared the Chevron Corporation of all liability in the civil suit filed by Larry Bowoto over violence on a Nigerian oil platform in 1998, which he sought to lay at the giant oil company's door by way of the Alien Tort Statute (AP coverage, Levine/The Recorder, Chevron statement). Bowoto's allegations of Chevron-backed brutality, circulated and amplified by activists based in the U.S. and elsewhere, had received largely uncritical coverage in such outlets as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and even BoingBoing (quoting Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation on the "shooting of unarmed environmental protesters in Nigeria"). American Lawyer entrusted its coverage of the case to left-wing journalist Daphne Eviatar, whose past writings in The Nation and elsewhere left little doubt as to where her sympathies lie.
If you were really diligent about Googling around, you might eventually have happened upon Chevron's side of the story. For example, those who made it to the very end of one lengthy Forbes piece on kidnappings of international workers would have read the following:
Few places are as treacherous as the Niger Delta, where last year 150 oil industry workers were kidnapped for ransom. Employees of Shell, Chevron, Schlumberger and Transocean, the Houston driller, have all dealt with abduction. Willbros Group, which provides engineering and construction to the oil and gas business, abandoned Nigeria after 9 employees, including 3 Americans, were kidnapped by militants who stormed a barge laying down pipe in 2006.
Chevron, which has had 60-plus people kidnapped (10 have been killed), must now deal with a new twist. This month lawyers working for Larry Bowoto will argue in a San Francisco courtroom that Chevron engaged in human rights violations when it hired Nigerian soldiers in 1998 to forcefully remove Bowoto and his unarmed group from a drilling platform. Bowoto, they will claim, was peacefully protesting the loss of fish and clean water in the area. The long-running case has been maddening for Chevron, which claims Bowoto and his gang took workers captive, beat two of them, poured diesel on the platform and threatened to set it ablaze unless Chevron paid a fee. Chevron Chief David O'Reilly referred to Bowoto as a "criminal" at the annual shareholders' meeting in late May, adding, "This is the most outrageous presentation that I have seen in my years at Chevron."
Just another cost of doing business abroad.
And maybe it is. But now that Chevron has been vindicated, it might be time for a second look at the way the press tends to accept at face value the lurid denunciations of international business proffered by the complex of legal strike forces, academic and non-profit centers, private law firms and others that wage litigation campaigns under the self-flattering banner of "international human rights". Among the groups that put their credibility at stake in pushing Bowoto v. Chevron is the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorney Judith Chomsky (sister-in-law of famed academic Noam Chomsky) has pursued a long series of ATS actions against overseas business. Another is EarthRights International, another specialist in this kind of suit, which is trying to gin up opposition to Attorney General nominee Eric Holder because he has defended Chiquita against such tort actions. And a perhaps more surprising third is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, regularly publicized as a supposed civil-liberties "good guy" on internet, telecom and tech issues, which many in Silicon Valley might be surprised to learn was involved in an issue of this sort at all. The next time CCR, ERI and EFF come around publicizing their version of some overseas controversy, will the press be as credulous?