When bulldozers and guns destroy a village, in the name of development, it’s often due to decisions made thousands of miles away in a corporate boardroom or government office. When a community stands up to defend itself, their struggle will likely end inside a courtroom they’ll never see. We represent these local communities in the courtroom, to ensure their voices are heard and their rights are defended.
In partnership with other organizations, private lawyers, and the communities themselves, our lawyers work to stop earth rights abuses before they start, and, when it’s too late, to seek justice for the survivors and the families of the victims. In the U.S., we use domestic and international law to hold corporations accountable for earth rights abuses abroad. In Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and beyond, we use a combination of advocacy, litigation, and legal mechanisms to do the same. In the Mekong region, for example, we provide strategic litigation and legal advocacy, including strategic, technical and financial support to local lawyers.
- our training work in the classroom and our advocacy in the field would be enough to ensure that local voices are included in development decisions, and that corporations and governments cannot get away with committing earth rights abuses. In reality, though, local communities need a team of lawyers that will pull out all the stops in the courtroom, whether it’s to seek legal intervention before a destructive project begins or to seek justice after something has gone horribly wrong.
Since our founding in 1995, we’ve stood toe to toe with some of the world’s most powerful companies.
- Doe v. Unocal: When the Burmese military pulled villagers from their homes and forced them to do backbreaking work to support a gas pipeline, while committing other horrific abuses including rape and murder, we filed a landmark lawsuit against one of the companies behind the project. Unocal was forced to settle in 2003, marking the first time a human rights lawsuit against a multinational corporation resulted in compensation for the survivors.
- Wiwa v. Shell: In the 1990s, Shell Oil partnered with the Nigerian government in a violent crackdown on non-violent environmental activists, culminating in the torture and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders. We took Shell to court and eventually earned a settlement for survivors and victims’ families.
- Maynas v. Occidental Petroleum: After 30 years of oil contamination led to illness, deaths, and agricultural ruin, we sued Occidental Petroleum on behalf of indigenous Achuar communities along the Corrientes River in Peru. This case was settled to the satisfaction of both parties in 2013. The settlement was announced on March 5, 2015.
- Doe v. Chiquita: In an inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department, Chiquita pled guilty to funding and arming terrorists in Colombia, but they have not compensated families whose lives were devastated by their actions. In 2007 we filed a class action lawsuit accusing Chiquita of financing torture, war crimes, and other human rights abuses and have taken this case all the way to the top: a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Families of the victims filed a petition to the Supreme Court in December 2014 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed their ATS claims last July. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case, parts of the Cardona case continue in a federal district court in Florida.
- Sahu v. Union Carbide: Thirty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster killed 5000 people in Bhopal, India, the abandoned chemical plant continues to pollute groundwater. We represent local residents in their ongoing lawsuit against Union Carbide, the previous owner of the plant.
- Indigenous Communities of the TIPNIS Reserve: The Bolivian government is poised to build a megahighway that will cut through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), threatening the livelihoods of at least 12,000 indigenous villagers and endangering a fragile ecosystem. We’re assisting the villagers in their legal intervention to stop the project.
- Jam v. IFC: Fishing communities and farmers from India filed suit against the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-lending arm of the World Bank Group, in federal court in Washington, D.C. The plaintiffs allege that the IFC caused the loss of their livelihoods, destroyed their lands and water, and created threats to their health by funding the Tata Mundra coal-fired power plant in Gujarat, India.
No lawyer can win every case, and we are no exception. But any case, win or lose, can still contain many smaller victories: setting precedent on procedural issues, testing out legal arguments and, most importantly, giving the plaintiffs the dignity of having their day in court. Regardless of the outcome of each case, we’re proud to have represented Nigerian activists who accused Chevron of supporting a military assault on protesters (Bowoto v. Chevron), and our first clients from Bhopal who sued Union Carbide for the original disaster and subsequent contamination (Bano v. Union Carbide).
Several of our cases were brought in U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a statute from 1789 that allows foreigners to bring lawsuits in the U.S. for violations of international law, including human rights abuses. In 2013, a Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Shell cast doubt on the future of the ATS. While we have hope that the ATS can still be used in some international human rights cases, we’ve hedged our bets by searching for new legal strategies to use U.S. courts to hold corporations accountable for earth rights abuses.
Supporting other casesOur most promising new strategy uses the Foreign Legal Assistance (FLA) statute to assist public interest lawyers in other countries with their cases. Under this statute (28 U.S.C. § 1782), “interested parties” may ask a U.S. federal court to obtain documents and testimony from people or companies located in the U.S., when that information is relevant to a foreign legal proceeding. We’ve brought FLA actions against several U.S. corporations to seek and acquire evidence for use in human rights cases abroad.
- Metsagharun v. Chevron Nigeria: In what we believe was the first time that a public interest group used the FLA to assist communities in a case against a U.S. multinational corporation, we sought to obtain information from Chevron regarding the negative impacts of gas flaring in Nigeria. The FLA action ended in a settlement in which Chevron agreed to turn over the requested documents. This action was inspired by Chevron itself, after the company tried to use the FLA to discredit its activist critics.
- Minis v. Thomson Safaris: When Maasai villagers in Tanzania accused a Massachusetts-based safari company of land-grabbing and violence, we filed an FLA action to obtain documents and testimony from the company. After a court order in favor of the Maasaii, the company offered to negotiate an agreement but then changed the terms and the villagers rejected the new terms. Currently the case is going to trial in Tanzania in May, using some of the evidence that ERI obtained.
- Campos-Alvarez v. Newmont Mining: In Peru, security forces hired by a mining company attacked and beat protesters, leading to a lawsuit. We’ve filed an FLA action against the mining company’s U.S. partner. In a victory, the court ordered Newmont to turn over evidence relating to police violence against protestors.
We’ve also written an FLA guide to inform communities, foreign lawyers, and other organizations about the existence, availability, and benefits of this strategy.
Supporting the movement at homeWhile we can’t take every case that comes across our desks, and we’ve not yet taken a case involving domestic abuses of earth rights in the United States, we are deeply committed to supporting the human rights and environmental movements by promoting and strengthening relevant laws, and bringing our expertise to bear on critical cases.
- Chevron v. Donziger: When Chevron launched a legal assault against its critics, in retaliation for alleged fraud in the infamous contamination case in Ecuador, we defended NGOs such as Amazon Watch and Rainforest Action Network and partnered with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to protect the digital privacy of activists and their allies.
- Oxfam v. SEC, API v. SEC: In 2010, Congress passed landmark transparency legislation which would discourage corruption by requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. The legislation has still not taken effect, however, because of an ongoing struggle between civil society and industry over how the SEC should implement the legislation. We’ve represented Oxfam America in a series of legal efforts to fend off industry attacks and to push strong, final rules through the SEC. In September 2015 the U.S. District Court ordered the SEC to expedite extractive industry revenue transparency regulations.
- Beyond our own cases, we’ve filed amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in many international human rights cases, as well as cases that could impact our own litigation. These briefs help lay a legal foundation for future human rights cases.
When a justice system works properly, the courtroom is one of the few places where vulnerable communities can face off against multinational corporations with equal power and authority. Too often the law has been used to mistreat communities, but our work is putting legal power back in the hands of the people who need it most.