Human Rights Official Calls for Rule of Law and Details of Police Probe
8 December 2005 - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109
San Francisco, USA - The United Nations has called on the Ecuadorian government to guarantee the safety of lawyers and leaders of a landmark environmental lawsuit against Chevron, following a series of threats and acts of harassment in recent weeks.
The request came in a letter from Hina Jilani, the UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, to the Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Relations, Antonio Parra Gil. The letter was sent on November 17 but did not become public until December 7.
In the letter, Ms. Jilani names the threatened individuals as lawyers Alejandro Ponce Villacís and Pablo Fajardo Mendoza; Ermel Chávez Parra, President of the Amazon Defense Coalition, the organization behind the multi-billion dollar lawsuit; and Luis Yanza, coordinator of the legal process for the plaintiffs.
Specifically, Ms. Jilani demands the Ecuadorian government provide her with:
- A full account of the acts of intimidation;
- Details of any measures taken by the Ecuadorian state to protect the threatened individuals;
- Details and results of the criminal investigation into the harassment, including any sanctions taken against the culprits.
Ms. Jilani writes that she needs the information in order to report the case to the UN's Human Rights Commission. Referring to Article 12 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she notes in her letter that the Ecuadorian state is committed to guaranteeing the protection of all its citizens against violence, threat and repression.
She adds: "I want to urge your government to adopt the measures necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of the persons mentioned and to investigate, try and impose the required sanctions on any person responsible for the alleged violations. I would also like to urge you to take effective measures to avoid any repetition of these incidents."
The UN's intervention is the latest development in the groundbreaking class-action lawsuit brought by 30,000 residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon against Chevron (formerly Texaco). The plaintiffs allege that the U.S. oil giant dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, from 1972 to 1990, as it drilled in the region.
The dumping, designed to save Texaco $3 a barrel, was a deliberate flouting of the industry standards of the time. It included 30 times more crude oil than the Exxon Valdez spill. Cancer and miscarriage rates among local communities have subsequently rocketed while fish and game populations have plunged. One indigenous tribe has disappeared since Texaco arrived in the region and two more are now on the brink of extinction. Independent experts estimate the cost of environmental remediation at $6 billion.
The harassment follows the suspension of a judicial field inspection at one of the contaminated sites after a military report falsely warned that a nearby indigenous community, of Cofan Indians, might threaten or kidnap Chevron's representatives during the inspection. In one incident, there was a kidnap attempt against the nine-year-old daughter of Mr. Yanza. In another, a telephone caller to the office of Mr. Fajardo Mendoza made an apparent death threat, saying that a "cleansing" of politically undesirable elements was under way in the region. Computers and files relating to the case were also stolen from the office of Mr. Ponce Villacís.
The intimidation is already being investigated by Ecuador's Human Rights Ombudsman, Dr. Claudio MuecKay and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States (OAS). A coalition of leading human rights organizations in Ecuador has also taken up the case. Dr. MuecKay has asked the armed forces to clarify their involvement in the case. He has also demanded that the Justice Minister, Cecilia Armas, launch a criminal probe into the threats and kidnap attempts.
Responding to the news of the UN's intervention, Mr. Yanza said: "We are very grateful for the support we are receiving from national and international human rights organizations, as well as the response of the Ecuadorian Human Rights Ombudsman, and we hope the Ecuadorian government starts taking a more active role in dealing with these incidents, of which it is well aware."
Meanwhile, the Ecuadorian Defense Secretary, Oswaldo Jarrín, has again cancelled his scheduled appearance before Ecuador's congressional Indigenous Affairs Commission. He had been due to answer questions about a shadowy contract between the armed forces and Chevron, and about the controversial military report.