Chevron in Ecuador

The archive of the Clean Up Ecuador campaign website

Rainforest Communities Seek Criminal Investigation of Chevron CEO Watson Before International Court

Amazon Watch

Amazon Watch
Contact: Karen Hinton at +1.703.798.3109

Quito, Ecuador – Rainforest communities in Ecuador today requested that an international court open a criminal investigation of Chevron CEO John Watson and other high-level officers of the company over their role in violating international humanitarian law by obstructing a court-mandated clean-up of toxic contamination in the Amazon, putting thousands of lives at risk.

The complaint was submitted to the International Criminal Court in the Hague on behalf of approximately 80 indigenous and farmer communities by Eduardo Toledo, an Argentine law scholar; and Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer for the affected communities who in 2011 won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for deliberately discharging billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest, decimating indigenous groups and contributing to the disappearance of two ethnic groups.

Chevron has refused to pay the court judgment – which has been affirmed unanimously by two appellate courts in Ecuador after two decades of arduous litigation – even though the company had promised to abide by the court decision as a condition of the case being moved out of U.S. federal court to the South American nation. Chevron's dumping in Ecuador has caused the deaths of thousands of people due to cancer and other oil-related diseases, according to evidence before the Ecuador court.

Instead of complying with the Ecuador court order in its preferred forum, Chevron under Watson's personal direction launched multiple collateral attacks against the judgment and the lawyers who represented the affected communities, according to the complaint. Watson and other high-level Chevron executives have promised the affected communities a "lifetime of litigation" and said they would fight the case "until hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice. "Watson also discussed his personal involvement in the strategy in various earnings calls with investor analysts and in a sworn deposition, according to the complaint.

"In the context of international criminal law, the decisions made by Chevron's CEO, John Watson, have deliberately maintained – and contributed to – the polluted environment in which the people of the Oriente region of Ecuador live and die every day," according to the complaint, which was submitted to Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. (The court's member states plus Bensouda have the power to refer cases or initiate criminal investigations.)

The complaint added that Watson, Chevron General Counsel R. Hewitt Pate "and other high-ranking officers [at Chevron] have deliberately maintained the situation of contamination in the Oriente and the deathly health effects caused." ("Oriente" is the term used in Ecuador to describe the Amazon region of the country.)

The complaint cited evidence and findings by three layers of courts in Ecuador that Chevron built its vast network of oil production facilities in the delicate ecosystem with the intent to discharge toxic waste as a way to increase its profits. It was clearly foreseeable such intentional practices would subject the local population to life-altering conditions, including cancers and other diseases, according to the document.

"The health conditions imposed on the indigenous and farmer communities that live in the Oriente constitute a serious and sustained attack on the population that has lived there peacefully for centuries," said the complaint. "The damages, which have been documented and confirmed in countless inspections conducted for the Ecuadorian case, brought various consequences, including water contamination, ground contamination, cancer, forced displacement, extermination of two ethnic groups, and many other disastrous conditions that are described in the annexes to this communication."

The complaint also notes that under international law an "attack" against the civilian population can be non-violent in nature. Analogizing to the apartheid system in South Africa – a form of societal governance that was declared a crime against humanity in 1973 – the complaint alleges that simply "exerting pressure" on a civilian population comes under the definition of a crime against humanity if the consequences are massive and systematic, as they are in Ecuador, said Fajardo.

Fajardo, a recent recipient of the Goldman Prize (known as the "Nobel" of the environment), was blunt about the goal of the communities in requesting the investigation.

"The filing of this complaint indicates we will continue to do all we can to hold accountable those individuals within Chevron responsible in whole or in part for the deaths and destruction that continue to afflict a vulnerable civilian population on a daily basis," he said.

"The evidence as found by the courts of Ecuador clearly shows that thousands of people have died or are at imminent risk of contracting life-threatening diseases due to Chevron's deliberate toxic dumping and Mr. Watson's refusal to abide by court orders," Fajardo added.

The ICC, which was founded in 2002 based on a treaty signed by 122 nations, has jurisdiction under international law to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. The theory of the Ecuadorian communities is that Watson's conscious efforts to undermine the legitimate Ecuador judgment in the face of such mortal danger to thousands of villagers is the equivalent of a "generalized and systematic attack against the civilian population" and therefore rises to the level of a crime against humanity under international law.

Ecuador is a party to the treaty creating the ICC, giving the communities jurisdiction to seek the investigation. The U.S. is not a party to the court.

Expert evidence submitted by the communities, based on several peer-reviewed studies, concluded that upwards of 10,000 individuals in the affected area have either died or will contract cancer in the coming years due to Watson's failure to clean up the company's pollution. That evidence, in the form of an expert report based on data generated by several peer-reviewed studies, can be seen here.

Fajardo said individual accountability was vital to the outcome of the litigation. The villagers are currently pursuing Chevron's corporate assets in Canada, Brazil and Argentina to force the company to pay for a clean-up.

"We must remember that Chevron is not a nameless and faceless corporate entity," Fajado added. "Watson is at the very top of the pyramid and he has been deeply involved personally in the strategy to maintain this illegal pressure on the civilian population of Ecuador. It is critical that all legal mechanisms be fully utilized to put an end to what is effectively impunity for a major American oil company that is committing human rights crimes against vulnerable populations."

The U.S.-based non-profit environmental group Amazon Watch, which has worked in support of the affected Ecuadorian communities for several years, lauded the filing of the complaint. "It is important that U.S. companies know that they can be held accountable for human rights crimes through international systems of justice even if they believe they can use their political power and connections to evade accountability in their home countries," said Paul Paz y Miño, an official with the organization.

For a summary of the various peer-reviewed studies that show high cancer rates in the region where Chevron operated, see here.

For a view of the devastating human toll of Chevron's contamination in Ecuador see this photo essay by award-winning journalist Lou Demattais. For background on some of the unethical tactics used by Chevron to obstruct the clean-up, see this sworn affidavit and this recent article in the American magazine Rolling Stone.