Punishing U.S. Business for Other People’s Crimes Overseas

By December 2, 2008Briefly Legal, Energy

A major finding for judicial restraint and national sovereignty was handed down yesterday in federal court in San Francisco, a rebuke to the crowd that blames America — and American business — for all bad things that happen, everywhere, at any time.

That’s not quite the angle the AP takes, though, “Federal jury clears Chevron of Nigeria abuses“:

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal jury has cleared Chevron Corp. of responsibility for any human rights abuses during a violent protest on a company oil platform in Nigeria a decade ago.

The verdict on Monday was a setback for human rights activists hoping to jump-start the use of a centuries-old law allowing foreigners to file lawsuits in U.S. courts alleging international law violations, often for alleged human rights abuses on foreign soil.

Where AP sees setback –and it is a setback, to be sure — Walter Olson at Point of Law sees stinging rebuke. We’ll go with that:

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.

As for the real danger facing oil workers in Nigeria, there’s less available. Olson points to good Forbes report on kidnappings and murder of international workers, which notes that Chevron had had 60 people kidnapped and 10 killed. PoL:

[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?

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