Amnesty International: Shareholder Activist

December 16, 2016

Emergildo Criollo, a leader from the Cofan tribe in Ecuador and Rita Maldonado, a Guanta community member at the demonstration outside the Chevron shareholder meeting. Behind them, an activist holds bottles of contaminated water. Photo: Amazon Watch
Emergildo Criollo, a leader from the Cofan tribe in Ecuador and Rita Maldonado, a Guanta community member at the demonstration outside the Chevron shareholder meeting. Behind them, an activist holds bottles of contaminated water. Photo: Amazon Watch

By Simon Billenness, Business and Human Rights Thematic Specialist and Paz y Miño, Andean Countries Specialist

Did you know Amnesty International USA is a long-time shareholder activist?

This week, Amnesty International USA joined the New York State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, in filing a shareholder resolution at Chevron Corporation. The resolution asks the company to appoint a board member with expertise in the impact on communities and the environment of its oil and gas extraction operations.

For over a decade, Amnesty International USA has retained a small amount of Chevron stock and other corporations for the purpose of engaging in shareholder activism. Owning this stock allows Amnesty International USA to join with other shareholders in filing resolutions and speaking out at corporate annual shareholder meetings. Our shareholder activism has given us the opportunity to advocate for human rights with companies, including ExxonMobil, Yahoo, and Dow Chemical.

Amnesty International USA has a long history of advocacy in support of the communities in Ecuador affected by Chevron’s oil pollution. For instance, in April 2006, Amnesty International USA joined a delegation of concerned shareholders and activists at the Chevron Corporation annual stockholder meeting in Houston, Texas, to demand the company address its human rights responsibilities in Ecuador’s Amazon and the Niger Delta. The delegation included Emergildo Criollo, a leader from the Cofan tribe in Ecuador.

We know shareholder activism has an impact because corporations constantly try to shut it down. For instance, in 2012, Chevron went so far as to subpoena me, demanding all of my emails and documents concerning Amnesty International’s shareholder activism regarding Chevron. This subpoena was in connection with a retaliatory lawsuit brought by Chevron against the Ecuadorian villagers and their lawyers who successfully won a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for its oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon. With its subpoenas, Chevron took aim at the advocacy work of Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, and Rainforest Action Network to try to shut it down.

What Chevron management desperately wants to avoid admitting to its shareholders is the significant risk the company still faces due to legal actions against it in Canada to enforce the Ecuadorian judgment. When Chevron fled Ecuador, after the $9.5 billion judgement against it, the affected communities turned to the courts in Brazil, Argentina, and Canada, seeking the seizure of the assets of Chevron subsidiaries in order to pay for the Ecuador judgement.

After an unanimous 2015 decision from Canada’s Supreme Court that gave a green light for the Ecuadorians to seek the seizure of Chevron’s assets in Canada, hearings were held in Ontario this past September.

The principal issue now before the Canadian courts is whether to grant the Ecuadorian’s request for access to Chevron-Canada’s assets to cover Chevron Corp’s $9.5 billion debt, versus Chevron’s defense motion to summarily dismiss the entire claim. The Ecuadorians base their plea on the massive evidence of contamination in Ecuador and the $9.5 billion verdict issued in Ecuador and upheld by its highest court. Chevron claims the verdict itself is fraudulent, basing this claim on the fact that it managed to win its retaliatory RICO (racketeering) lawsuit in the US by alleging bribery, corruption, and a “ghostwritten” judgment by the Ecuadorian court. The problem for Chevron is that its key witness admitted to lying about that bribe and forensic evidence disproves its “ghostwriting” claims.

Shareholders, in ever increasing numbers, are alarmed not only at Chevron’s willingness to abuse the law and attack its critics, but at the considerable waste of resources in fighting a case in which the company is so obviously culpable. Indeed, estimates of amount spent by Chevron to fight the Ecuadorian judgment, rather than simply clean up, have already reached over $2 billion.

At Chevron’s annual shareholder meeting this past May, a significant number of Chevron shareholders expressed criticism of management. Shareholders voted 378,540,311 shares in support of a resolution that cited management’s mishandling of the case in Ecuador and called for tighter shareholder oversight. Put simply, Chevron management lost the confidence of shareholders holding nearly one third of its shares, valued at almost $38 billion.

Chevron’s actions in this case have made the company renown worldwide as a bad corporate citizen and violator of both human rights and the environment. That is why the shareholder action brought by Amnesty International USA continues to be an important and effective part of human rights advocacy on behalf of the Ecuadorian villagers whose lives were destroyed by Chevron’s oil pollution.