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Bowoto v. Chevron - The Flamingo Defense

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Bowoto v. Chevron continued on Wednesday, the second full day of the trial, with the examination of the plaintiff's expert and two witnesses for the plaintiffs, including the beginning of the questioning of lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto. For a better understanding of a brief background on the case and to understand what precisely is at stake in this landmark human rights case, take a look at Daniel Firger's posts here and here.

Wednesday morning I watched the beginning development of a very specific narrative thread by Chevron - the underlying claim that they did not know, and could not know, that the Nigerian military forces would flagrantly violate human rights in the manner that the plaintiffs allege.

This thread began to emerge as the plaintiffs finished examining their expert, Dr. Michael Watts. Dr. Watts characterized the military government of Nigeria in the 1990s as signaling a general "descent into flagrant authoritarianism" and testified regarding the flagrant human rights violations that the military forces of Nigeria had committed in other areas of the nation and the extensive media and non-governmental organization coverage that those abuses had attracted. Dr. Watts cited a wide-variety of sources regarding these violations, from Nigerian media reports, to Amnesty International reports, to U.S. State Departments assessments.

During the subsequent cross-examination, Chevron's attorneys sought to cast doubt on Dr. Watts' contention that the Nigerian military forces were widely known to be the perpetrators of massive human rights violations. The lawyers took great pains to illustrate that the human rights violations referred to in Dr. Watts' report came from a location several states away from where the Bowoto incident occurred - inferring that because the violations were so remote Chevron could not possibly have known about them.

However, the basic assertion is ridiculous. The idea that Chevron, an international oil-conglomerate that is sophisticated enough to operate in nations around the world and sophisticated enough to remain as a constant presence during shifting governmental power in Nigeria, easily surviving military coup after military coup, could not have discovered what the U.S. State Department was able to include in one of their general assessments is laughable. With a long-term presence on the ground in Nigeria, with at least two separate local offices and over two thousand employees, it is impossible to imagine that Chevron would have no idea that the military forces were, at times, something less than professional in their exercise of force. After all, even your average American with no special knowledge could tell you that African military forces aren't generally known for their restraint and respect for human dignity.

Fabricated naïveté have long been the backstop to Chevron's activities around the world, serving as the company's first line of defense against any allegations of outrageous conduct levied against the corporation, employing what I'll call the "flamingo defense" (for the ability of the company to stick it's head in the sand whenever trouble comes around). Here the corporation is arguing that it couldn't have known that the uncontrollable Nigerian forces were dangerous to send into this "nervous" situation. In Burma that company has long argued that it couldn't have known that the military government Chevron was propping up has been one of the most brutal human rights violators on Earth. In Ecuador the company has long alleged that it could not have known that applying environmental standards that were inappropriate for the sensitive ecosystem of the rainforest would have such devastating effects.

At the end of the day, Chevron is again recycling old tricks. As I wrote about yesterday, it appears that every time the corporation's back is to the wall, they reach to the same bag and pull out the same tools, pivoting to the attack along the same tired themes. Their constant position seems to be borrowed from the Karl Rove playbook of "Deny everything. Admit nothing. Attack, attack, attack." But maybe that is to be expected - Chevron's legal department is dominated by Bush administration loyalists, including Charles James and famous author of the "torture memo", William Haynes.

The trial will be continuing in coming days, with lead plaintiff Larry Bowoto launching into the heart of his testimony Thursday morning.

I'll keep you updated.