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CHRCL joins over 475 lawyers, legal orgs and human rights defenders support lawyer Steven Donziger

Updated: Apr 13, 2021


Click here to read the National Lawyers Guild International Committee article titled Over 475 lawyers, legal organizations and human rights defenders support lawyer Steven Donziger

Published May 18, 2020

NEW YORK, May 18 - Over 75 organizations, including international legal organizations and major human rights networks, signed on to an open letter released today in support of environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, who has faced nearly unprecedented sanctions from a U.S. federal judge for his pursuit of Chevron for a judgment against the oil giant over its environmental devastation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The letter identifies the case as "one of the most important corporate accountability and human rights cases of our time." In 2011, indigenous plaintiffs in the Ecuadorian Amazon received a $19 billion judgment against Chevron for the actions of its predecessor company, Texaco, which spilled over 17 million gallons of crude oil, dumped over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and left hundreds of open pits throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon. The persecution of Donziger, a lawyer for the indigenous peoples affected, stems directly from Chevron's attempt to avoid paying the judgment, which was reduced to $9.5 billion in 2013 by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court. The letter, initiated by the National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, was also signed by over 400 lawyers and human rights advocates around the world, including Members of the German Bundestag Eva-Maria Schreiber and Margarete Bause, and Member of European Parliament Marie Toussaint of France. The letter urges an end to the unjustified pretrial house arrest of Donziger, noting that "such arbitrary detention sets a dangerous precedent for human rights attorneys in the United States and around the world." Donziger has refused to turn over confidential client information and privileged data to Chevron. It also highlights the behavior of Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in the case, noting his pronounced favoritism towards Chevron throughout the progress of the case. Kaplan made public comments about Chevron's importance to the global economy, expressed skepticism about the Ecuadorian judgment due to what he called the "socialist government" of Rafael Correa and held investments in multiple funds with Chevron holdings at the time of his rulings. Despite Kaplan's recommendation that Donziger's law license be suspended, the Referee John R. Horan for the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, issued a report and recommended that Donziger's suspension be lifted, noting that "[t]he extent of his pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive...Assessment of character is not an exact science, but we can all agree that the essential components are honesty, integrity and credibility… Respondent has such character and is essentially working for the public interest, and not against it…" Further, the letter also highlights the importance of corporate accountability and an end to corporate impunity. Chevron's aggressive pursuit of Donziger is tied directly to its refusal to take responsibility for the environmental damage caused by its predecessor company, Texaco, to the Ecuadorian Amazon. Over 30,000 indigenous peoples have waited for justice and accountability for many years, and the persecution of Donziger only pushes justice back for those who are the most deeply affected. As the letter notes, "Extractive industries continue to pilfer the earth and the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples without anything to stop them. Frontline human rights defenders are often killed and along with the prosecution for those deaths, the actions of the corporations behind these deaths enjoy impunity." Please see the full letter below for the complete list of signatories, including bar associations and lawyers' networks around the world, environmental justice and indigenous rights organizations, as well as an array of lawyers, human rights advocates, academics and international law experts. CONTACT: Jeanne Mirer, jmirer@mmsjlaw.com; Natali Segovia, segovia.natali@gmail.com DOWNLOAD PDF LETTER: English | Spanish OPEN LETTER DEMANDING AN END TO UNPRECEDENTED HOUSE ARREST OF HUMAN RIGHTS ATTORNEY STEVEN DONZIGER AND A CALL TO THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMUNITY TO #MAKECHEVRONCLEANUP “ALMOST TWENTY YEARS AGO, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. All governments made the strong commitment to prioritise the security and protection of Human Rights Defenders, recognizing the right of all individuals and organisations to peacefully defend human rights. Yet, the world seems less and less safe for those who stand up for human dignity.” – Michael Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders[1] As members of the international legal community, including human rights, environmental rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, we must protect human rights defenders.  We are outraged by the attack on the rule of law evidenced in the arbitrary detention of human rights attorney, Steven Donziger. Thanks to corporate-friendly federal Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who openly stated his pro-corporate bias in a case involving a multinational corporation,[2] a dangerous precedent is being set chilling legal representation. In the “Land of the Free,” Donziger has now spent more than 9 months under unprecedented house arrest in retaliation for his work on behalf of indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon against oil giant, Chevron, in one of the most important corporate accountability and human rights cases of our time. In 1993, U.S. human rights attorney, Steven Donziger, became part of the legal team for 30,000 indigenous peoples and affected campesinos in the Ecuadorian Amazon seeking justice from the environmental damage and ongoing health crisis caused by oil company Texaco, for deliberately polluting the Amazon Rainforest. From 1964 to 1990, Texaco dumped over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, spilled more than 17 million gallons of crude oil and left hundreds of open pits with hazardous waste in the forest floor. In 2000, Chevron purchased Texaco along with everything that came with it – including liability for the destruction Texaco had caused in Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region. The Cofan people, among other indigenous groups and rural communities that call the Amazon home, have suffered intense environmental and health ramifications of “Chevron’s cost of doing business,” including lack of potable water, displacement from ancestral lands, irreparable loss of culture, and severe health concerns, including heightened mortality rates due to birth defects and widespread incidence of cancer. In 2011, after nearly two decades of litigation in Ecuador—where Chevron executives had hoped they would win—Chevron was found guilty and ordered to pay $19 billion in damages and for cleanup. In 2013, Chevron appealed to the Ecuadorian Supreme Court, who upheld the previous judgment and ordered Chevron to pay a reduced $9.5 billion to clean up. Despite knowing that the money from the judgment would be used for environmental repair, not individual indemnifications, Chevron—one of the world’s largest corporations with over $260 billion in assets—sold its assets in Ecuador and fled the country. In the US, it began a counter-offensive strategy, threatening human rights lawyers and the indigenous plaintiffs with a “lifetime of litigation.”[3] To date, by some estimates, Chevron has spent nearly $2 billion in a massive legal and defamatory propaganda campaign aimed at taking down Steven Donziger and finding work-arounds to the Ecuadorian judgment. At the unorthodox suggestion of Judge Kaplan, in 2011, Chevron filed a RICO complaint against Donziger and two Ecuadorian attorneys, claiming that the judgment obtained after 10-years of litigation before three levels of Ecuadorian courts was the product of fraud and extortion. In 2014, after the prolonged RICO trial aimed at weakening Donziger and Amazonian plaintiffs’ resolve, Judge Kaplan, who has made public comments about Chevron’s importance in the global economy, [4] ruled in favor of the oil giant.[5] At the time of his decision, Judge Kaplan had undisclosed financial ties to Chevron that would have provided grounds for Ecuadorian plaintiffs and Donziger to seek his recusal.[6] In Kaplan’s RICO decision, despite having previously ignored the basic principle of international comity (respect among nations for each other’s legal systems) when he attempted to prohibit enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment against Chevron in any nation[7]—an injunction that was ultimately vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2011—Kaplan found a new way to circumvent the enforcement issue. The RICO order, though explicitly allowing enforcement in other countries, imposes a constructive trust where any funds that might be collected on the judgment outside the U.S. would have to be held in trust for Chevron. More recently, Kaplan held that this constructive trust also blocks the Ecuadorian plaintiffs from raising any money to pay for the supposedly allowed foreign enforcement actions. Extraordinarily, after some progress was made in other countries to enforce the judgment with Donziger’s help, Judge Kaplan allowed Chevron to initiate a costly and intrusive document discovery process against Donziger and others associated with the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. Kaplan required Donziger to turn over his client communications to Chevron from over two decades of work, meaning that Chevron would gain backdoor access to information they could not obtain legally through the discovery process, including conversations regarding litigation strategy, among other things, of all those involved in the human rights case, thus infringing upon one of the most time-honored privileges: that of an attorney and his clients. Donziger objected to Kaplan’s orders and filed an appeal. When Kaplan demanded that Donziger nonetheless produce the privileged information while the appeal was pending, Donziger refused on principle and openly stated he was willing to be held in civil contempt of court if necessary. Kaplan did hold him in civil contempt—and then, in July 2019, increased the pressure by drafting extraordinary criminal contempt charges against Donziger. Kaplan referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which declined to prosecute. Undeterred, Kaplan took it upon himself to appoint a private law firm, Seward & Kissel (a firm with known ties to Chevron and Chevron-related entities),[8] to prosecute Donziger despite their conflict of interest. Judge Kaplan also bypassed the random case assignment process and handpicked Judge Loretta Preska to oversee the prosecution. Quickly continuing the process marked by disproportionate harshness, Judge Preska remanded Donziger to home detention along with the seizure of his passport, and required an $800,000 bond as conditions of his pretrial release. Preska found that even though Donziger has a family and deep ties to New York, the “risk” that he would flee the country and try to live out his life in exile was so great that he had to be confined to his home. Donziger faces a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment from criminal contempt, but has already “served” nine months of pretrial home detention. Donziger was also referred to the New York bar, requesting his law license be suspended based on the claim that he was an “immediate threat to the public interest.” Donziger’s law license was suspended for 18 months before he was afforded a modicum of due process and finally provided a hearing. On February 24, 2020, in an important moment for Donziger’s case, Referee John R. Horan for the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, issued a report and recommended that Donziger’s “interim [bar license] suspension should be ended and that he should be allowed to resume the practice of law.” Horan, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, added, “[t]he extent of his pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive, while not a factor in my recommendation, is nonetheless background to it… Assessment of character is not an exact science, but we can all agree that the essential components are honesty, integrity and credibility… Respondent has such character and is essentially working for the public interest, and not against it… If his interest in earning a large fee makes his character suspect, the entire bar is suspect.”[9] This fight is not just about the money and it’s not just about Donziger. It is about accountability and the very bedrock of the rule of law – that no one, no matter how powerful – is above the law. Yet, as Donziger himself has stated, “Chevron is trying to kill off the idea that impoverished indigenous groups and lawyers can pool their talents and resources like we have to take on Big Oil and be successful.”[10] If Chevron prevails, it will reaffirm the status quo – that a multinational corporation can defy national and international law with impunity. When human rights defenders are attacked, it is democracy itself that suffers. In many countries, commitment to environmental activism such as Steven Donziger’s often results in death. A recent report by Front Line Defenders reveals that in 2019, over 300 human rights defenders were killed in 31 countries, with over two-thirds killed in Latin America, where impunity from prosecution is the norm. Forty percent of those killed fought for land rights, indigenous peoples, and environmental justice.[11] The report details the physical assault, defamation campaigns, digital security threats, judicial harassment and attacks faced by human rights defenders across the world. We cannot allow the rule of law to be upended by corporate interests and a highly biased federal judge seeking to destroy the willpower of one lawyer who has already withstood decades of brutal litigation and scathing personal and professional attacks. We, the undersigned, call upon the members of the international legal community, human rights, environmental rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, including those in the United States and abroad, to stand in solidarity with Steven Donziger and the 30,000 indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and hereby DEMAND:

  • #FreeDonziger - We demand an immediate end to the unjustified pretrial house arrest of human rights attorney Steven Donziger which is nearing 10 months as a result of a violation of due process.

As stated above, such arbitrary detention sets a dangerous precedent for human rights attorneys in the United States and around the world.

  • #InvestigateKaplan - Judge Lewis A. Kaplan undermined the judiciary, lacking impartiality and refusing to recuse himself in a case where he repeatedly displayed a clear bias towards one of the parties, thus violating basic notions of fairness in the judicial process that lie at the core of the rule of law.

By no means exhaustive, this letter has detailed only some of the overtly biased actions taken and statements made by Judge Kaplan that betray the ethical duty of an impartial judge. It is no surprise that the principles of independence and impartiality of the judiciary enjoy universal allegiance in U.S. law and in the ratified human rights instruments incorporated into United States domestic law through Article 6 section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.  The right to a fair trial by an impartial tribunal is one of the most basic human rights guarantees.[12] In 1995, the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights considered judicial independence and impartiality to form part of the “general principles of law recognised by civilised nations.”[13] Judge Kaplan’s actions have violated the integrity of the U.S. federal judiciary, called into question his apparent lack of compliance with his ethical duties as defined by the Code of Judicial Conduct, and therefore, the Department of Justice along with the United States Senate and House Judiciary Committees should take action and investigate Kaplan’s role in this case, as well as level sanctions for abuse of judicial power and any other appropriate claims, including immediate removal and dismissal of all claims against Donziger.[14]

  • #MakeChevronCleanUp – We demand Corporate Accountability, not Corporate Impunity for the environmental damages caused to the Ecuadorian Amazon and over 30,000 indigenous peoples that have waited long enough for justice.

Starting with the reign of the United Fruit Company in Latin America, the impact of multinational corporations worldwide is nothing new. Extractive industries continue to pilfer the earth and the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples without anything to stop them. Frontline human rights defenders are often killed and along with the prosecution for those deaths, the actions of the corporations behind these deaths enjoy impunity. As Victoria Tauli-Corpus, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has said, “[t]he killings make news, but hidden behind these headlines is something even more insidious: the silencing of entire communities.” The 30,000 indigenous peoples and affected campesinos of the Ecuadorian Amazon and their allies worldwide will not be silenced.[15] Sincerely, International Association of Democratic Lawyers National Lawyers Guild International Committee Organizational Endorsements

  1. A Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO)

  2. Acción Jurídica Popular

  3. Alliance for Global Justice

  4. Amazon Watch

  5. Asociación Americana de Juristas (AAJ)

  6. Asociacion Americana de Juristas Rama Colombia

  7. Asociación Civil NACE UN DERECHO

  8. Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente, AIDA

  9. Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos (ANAD)

  10. Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network

  11. Camino Común: Solidarity International

  12. Canadian Buddhist Civil Liberties Association

  13. Caribbean Institute for Human Rights

  14. Central Arizona National Lawyers Guild

  15. Climate Defense Project

  16. Climate Hawks Vote

  17. Colegio de Abogados y Abogadas de Puerto Rico

  18. Colombia Support Network

  19. Comitê Carioca de Solidariedade a Cuba – Brasil

  20. Comité Internacional Paz, Justicia y Dignidad a los Pueblos