The ICC, Continuing Crimes, and Lago Agrio

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawyers for the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have filed a communication with the ICC asking the OTP to investigate Chevron officials for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with the company’s “rainforest Chernobyl” in Ecuador. Ecuador ratified the Rome Statute in 2002.

Regular readers know my sympathies — both ethical and legal — lie squarely with the Lago Agrio plaintiffs. The only thing more unconscionable than Chevron’s destruction of the rainforest in Ecuador is its willingness to lie and manufacture evidence in order to avoid paying for its destruction. In a world with better criminal laws, I have no doubt that the CEO of Chevron and everyone else involved in the company’s misdeeds would be serving long prison sentences somewhere.

But we do not live in a world with better laws, and unfortunately the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ communication faces a steep uphill battle. To begin with, the communication is not quite sure what Chevron has done that qualifies as a crime against humanity. It oscillates — very confusingly — between failing to pay the damages award in Ecuador (p. 19), attempting to cover up the extent of the pollution in Ecuador (p. 23), engaging in unsavoury litigation practices (p. 25), maintaining the polluted conditions (p. 36), and causing the pollution in the first place (p. 36). Those are, of course, very different arguments.

One thing is clear: the ICC could not prosecute Chevron’s deliberate dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste-water into the Lago Agrio region, because that dumping occurred long before 1 July 2002, when the Rome Statue entered into force. That’s too bad, because I think a strong case can be made that intentional pollution of an area occupied by civilians could, in the right circumstances, qualify as a number of crimes against humanity — from forcible transfer to persecution to “other inhumane acts.” As the plaintiffs rightly note (p. 27), an “attack on a civilian population” does not have to involve physical violence.

That said, the communication seems to suggest that the plaintiffs view the contamination as some kind of continuing crime. It claims (p. 40), for example, that the potential crimes against humanity involved in the dumping “continue even today.” The idea seems to be that those crimes will continue until Chevron remediates the pollution — similar to the idea, promoted by various scholars, that Israel’s illegal transfer of its civilians into the West Bank will qualify as a crime against humanity until such time as the settlements are disbanded or that enforced disappearances continue until the responsible government identifies the fate of the victims. It is an open question whether the ICC will even recognise continuing crimes, as the ICTR has. I’m skeptical, given the drafters of the Rome Statute’s quite deliberate decision not to give the ICC retroactive jurisdiction. Few Latin American governments would have ratified the Rome Statute if they knew that their actions during the Dirty War would be open to judicial scrutiny.

But let’s assume the ICC will recognise continuing crimes. Would that mean the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have a case? It’s an interesting question. As noted above, it’s possible that Chevron’s deliberate pollution of the Lago Agrio region qualified as the crime against humanity of forcible transfer; “forcible” doesn’t require physical force and the defendant(s) do not have to intend to drive people fro where they are lawfully entitled to be. (They simply have to be virtually certain that will be the result.) So there is at least an argument that Chevron is responsible for forcible transfer until it cleans up the region to the point where displaced residents can return to their homes. But I can’t see the ICC accepting that argument, if only because of the potential implications — there are probably dozens of situations in member-states in which pollution predictably drove people from their homes and continues to prevent their return. That’s the problem with “continuing crimes”: they simply throw open the courthouse door in a manner the drafters of the Rome Statute were unlikely to have intended.

But that is not the only problem with the communication. Even if the ICC recognised continuing crimes, it is not clear how the current crop of Chevron officials could be held responsible for the (continuing) forcible transfer of people from Lago Agrio. Aiding and abetting would seem to be the most likely mode of participation, given that those officials presumably had nothing to do with the dumping of the waste (which was done by Texaco, which Chevron later acquired). Not paying the judgment and litigation misconduct, though reprehensible, would hardly qualify as aiding and abetting the forcible transfer. (I suppose one could argue paying the plaintiffs would make it easier for them to return home, but I can’t see the ICC convicting someone on such an attenuated basis.) The only real argument would be that Chevron’s current officials are aiding and abetting the continuing forcible transfer by failing to remediate the environmental damage in Lago Agrio. That is not a nonsensical idea, but it seems unlikely to succeed. Art. 25(3)(c) aiding and abetting would almost certainly be off the table, because it would require the Chevron officials to subjectively intend for people in Lago Agrio not to be able to return to their homes. No matter what you think of Chevron — and I obviously think precious little — that would be nearly impossible to prove. More likely is Art. 25(3)(d)’s version of aiding and abetting, contributing to a group crime, which would “only” require the OTP to prove that Chevron officials contributed to the forcible transfer by impeding remediation despite knowing that Chevron intended for the displacement to continue. Again, no matter what you think of Chevron’s remediation efforts (much of which was fraudulent), that’s a stretch. Not impossible, to be sure. But a stretch.

In short, unless the ICC is willing to recognise continuing crimes and adopt a very capacious understanding of aiding and abetting, it is difficult to see the OTP opening an investigation into the Lago Agrio situation. All of the other crimes against humanity identified by the Lago Agrio plaintiffs — murder, persecution, other inhumane acts — clearly took place, if they took place at all, long before 1 July 2002. And the current Chevron officials can hardly be held accountable for them.

2 Responses

  1. On continued crimes and ICC jurisdiction you may wish to refer to footnote 24 of the Elements of the Crime against humanity of enforced disappearance of persons, which clearly indicates that the Court has jurisdiction only if the “attack” (read: extraction-disappearance”) occurs after the entry into force of the Rome Statute.
    No such a footnote was added by the drafters for any other crime under the Rome Statute.

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  1. […] of the ICC complaint here but have not heard back yet. Readers may, however, be interested in a piece by Kevin Jon Heller, who is sympathetic to the LAPs’ overall case, at Opinio Juris. Lawyers for the Lago Agrio […]