Sacred Headwaters #46: Free Steven Donziger
And make Chevron pay. How fossil fuel companies and their lawyers bribe public officials to hold political prisoners – even in the United States.
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Issue #46: Free Steven Donziger
Steven Donziger is not your typical political prisoner. He’s a white, 60-year-old human rights lawyer who lives in New York. And he’s been detained for almost three years (partially on house arrest, partially in prison) for a misdemeanor charge that carries a maximum sentence of six months.
The story began 25 years ago when Donziger, working on behalf of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador, sued Texaco, now part of Chevron, for causing catastrophic environmental harm. In 2011, they won, and an Ecuadorean court ordered Chevron to pay out a settlement that would ultimately land at $9.5 billion.
Ten years later, Chevron hasn’t paid a dime; instead, they’ve worked with law firms like Gibson Dunn (currently facing a student boycott thanks to the courageous work of Law Students for Climate Accountability) and members of the American judiciary system to imprison Donziger. They’ve also spent as much as a billion dollars on legal teams fighting the ruling in Ecuador, Canada, and the United States.
Amnesty International has called for his release and the United Nations Human Rights Council went as far as saying, “the charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appears to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities.” A number of members of Congress have spoken out on the issue, but Donziger’s own representatives in New York have remained silent: his two senators, Kirsten Gillebrand and Chuck Schumer, are both major recipients of funding from Gibson Dunn and other law firms that do business with Chevron, and his representative, Jerrold Nadler, has direct family ties to Gibson Dunn.
The story just gets more absurd the deeper you get. We’ll read about it below. But this isn’t interesting just for its own sake, or for Donziger’s – thankfully, his sentence will be up on April 25th and he’ll be free one way or another, at least until Chevron’s next move. It’s interesting – hopefully, even for those outside the US – because it lays out the dense network of corruption that stands in the face of climate justice. We tell ourselves that so-called “developed” countries like the US aren’t corrupt, at least not in the way those “banana republics” of the south are – it’s part of the ideological justification of the extractive relationships between the global north and south that have dominated recent human history. But at the same time, most recognize that wealth is power, even in northern democracies – we just fudge over the reality of what that means.
Donziger’s case lays it out pretty clearly. The networks of connections between the political class, the wealthy, the fossil fuel industry, the law itself, and even the media are incredibly dense. Seeing something like this happen in the US – and seeing certain media outlets largely ignore it despite international human rights bodies rightly naming it as an illegal political vendetta – illustrates just how intransigent the system is. It also illustrates how transnational corporations have leveraged the US hegemony of the postwar period to create an international system that allows them to operate outside of any individual nation’s law: Chevron has been held liable for this disaster by two different country’s highest courts but are continuing to avoid any material actual accountability.
As Donziger always emphasizes: he will be fine. But the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador still haven’t been paid and companies like Chevron are still polluting and still punishing anyone who opposes them, both with and without the support of governments like the US.
This video, narrated by Donziger himself, tells the half-century story of the case, primarily focusing on the environmental damage caused by Texaco in Ecuador. They deliberately spilled oil in vast, inhabited areas of the Ecuadorian Amazon and left thousands of open pits of waste oil behind. The pollution killed (and continues to kill) many people and extinguished entire ways of life that depended on the rainforest. After years of judicial run-around, the Ecuadorian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Donziger’s clients and Chevron effectively fled the country, bringing the fight to more friendly US soil. One interesting note: at the end of the video, Donziger talks about how this story is an example of how oil companies socialize the costs of their products while capturing the profits. He’s talking specifically about the environmental damage in Ecuador, in subaltern communities around the world, and even in places like “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana where largely minority populations have been poisoned by petrochemical companies, but the frame applies equally well to climate change and the atmosphere. While the idea of socialized costs is a useful rhetorical frame, it also obscures the underlying dynamics of capitalism and supports the “climate change is just a simple market failure that can be fixed” narrative. Yes, we’re all paying the costs of oil extraction and consumption – some much more than others – but it’s happening because of a deliberate exercise of power by those enriched by it, not because of an accounting error.
Chevron’s Prosecution of Steven Donziger (5 minutes)
James North, The Nation
This is a relatively recent one of a number of articles North has written on the Donziger case. In this piece, he briefly summarizes Donziger’s situation and reports on a number of documents The Nation obtained that detail the connections between Gibson Dunn, Rita Glavin (the private attorney appointed by Judge Kaplan to prosecute the case against Donziger when the US Attorney refused to), and Chevron. The highlights are quick: Gibson Dunn was paid $3 million by Chevron to prepare a civil contempt case against Donziger. Judge Kaplan abruptly and atypically changed the charge to criminal contempt and appointed Rita Glavin to take over the prosecution, who proceeded with documented, though allegedly unpaid, support from Gibson Dunn. There is evidence that Chevron has continued to pay Gibson Dunn in the period since then, though Gibson Dunn denies that they were remunerated by Chevron for their work supporting Donziger’s prosecution. On top of all that, Rita Glavin has billed the US government three quarters of a million dollars for her work prosecuting Donziger…for a misdemeanor.
North makes a compelling case that Chevron and their lawyers have played a hands-on role in the criminal prosecution of a US citizen – something that is, at the very least, extremely unusual.
The Whole Judiciary Branch Has a Credibility Crisis (10 minutes)
Alexander Sammon, The Prospect
This piece speaks to the inappropriate ties both judges involved in Donziger’s case have and to the broader questions of legitimacy and corruption in America’s “justice” system. In summarizing Donziger’s case, Sammon points out that Judge Lewis Kaplan – who decided to charge Donziger with criminal contempt – failed to disclose investments he held in Chevron while ruling on the case and that Judge Loretta Preska – who ultimately presided over Donziger’s trial and found him guilty – is part of the Federalist Society, a conservative organization funded by Chevron. To borrow a phrase from one of the Ecuadorian villagers involved in the lawsuits, “The fact [Judge Kaplan] had investments in Chevron and never told us is more brazen than what I could have imagined.”
Sammon goes on to situate Donziger’s case in the broader questions of the justice system’s legitimacy. He points to a recent Wall Street Journal investigation that found federal judges regularly make rulings on cases while holding stock that would be affected by those rulings – well worth a read – and to how endemic this practice is amongst government and elected officials. Hell, Nancy Pelosi recently refused to consider banning equity trading for members of Congress (though she’s apparently softened her tone slightly in the last few weeks), saying – I kid you not – “We are a free market economy. They should be able to participate in that.”
Catrin Einhorn, The New York Times
Indigenous peoples of Ecuador just won another major court victory (not directly related to Donziger or his case) establishing that the government must have Indigenous consent (free, prior, and informed consent) to move forward with oil extraction and mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It’s a big victory, and as Einhorn notes, it presents a major problem for Ecuador’s plans to “double oil production and expand mining in coming years.” (Canadian readers, take note: the whole situation ought to sound familiar). This ruling comes just days after a(nother) major oil spill in a protected area in the Ecuadorian Amazon – a spill caused by the reckless construction of a megadam project in a highly geologically active area that led to the disappearance of a six hundred foot waterfall, and now, predictably enough, to this pipeline rupture.
You can find more information about Donziger’s case and how you can support him at www.freedonziger.com.
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