Case by case, country by country, Judith Brown Chomsky stands up for
global human rights.
By Ryan Crawford
Jul. 21, 2009
Judith Brown Chomsky's life isn't sexy. She's not a bombshell movie
star or salacious singing sensation. Chomsky isn't an American Idol
in any typical sense. But she should be. Her impact on society is
international and goes well beyond MTV and VH-1 into the global arena
of peace and justice.
The 67-year-old is an academic turned activist turned lawyer who has
fought some of the most important and controversial human rights
battles in the past decades. She's litigated cases against tear gas
manufacturers in Palestine, represented Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib
detainees, participated in trying Bosnian war criminals and pressed
human rights lawsuits against corporations operating with impunity in
Third World countries.
Chomsky's no superstar, and accolades for human rights
activismespecially in the courtroomare rare. But she's done more to
right the wrongs of this planet than any celebrity we read about on a
She does it all from her Elkins Park law office, which doubles as
home for Chomsky, her husband David (brother of linguist Noam
Chomsky) and their two hulking mastiffs.
The Philly native scored her latest victory for humanity on June 9,
when Dutch Royal Shell settled with Nigerian plaintiffs for $15.5
million. The casewhich was finally set to go to trial after 13
yearsalleged that the oil company committed gross human rights
violations by colluding with the Nigerian government to facilitate
torture and extrajudicial killings of a group of activists, the Ogoni
Nine, in the Niger Delta.
The litigation was one of the first of its kind, successfully
bringing human rights charges in a U.S. court against a multinational
corporation even though the alleged crimes took place in another
country and the victims were foreign. The victory was based on the
Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a 210-year-old statute that allows U.S.
courts to remedy matters of international law.
The case's invocation of ATCA was important. Multinational
corporations are notoriously difficult to police given jurisdictional
issues, but the Act paves the way for lawyers like Chomsky to hold
corporate predators accountable in U.S. courts for torture and killings.
The fact that ATCA was seldom invoked for the first two centuries of
its existence makes it a point of controversy.
"At the time we filed them we didn't know if it would work," says
Chomsky. "To go against a multinational company, that was a big
thing. A lot of people said that it couldn't be done."
Chomsky is a part of the legal team at the Center for Constitutional
Rights, a nonprofit firm committed to civil rights.
She was originally brought in to help on a liability case in
Palestine. At the time, she was a labor lawyer and her knowledge of
corporate structure made her a natural fit.
She discovered that challenging corporations was fun and jibed with
values that she had always championed. Chomsky asked for more cases
and the Center obliged.
Since then, the global defender has stood up for society's most
vulnerable victims against some of the most powerful corporations in
the worldsometimes traveling to extremely volatile parts of the
globe in order to do so.
She recalls that early on in the Shell case lawyers couldn't even
meet some of the clients because traveling to Nigeria under General
Sani Abacha would've been too dangerous for everyone involved.
Nowadays the doting grandmother is no longer phased by making the
transition from working quietly in her office to landing outside the
border of Burma to meet clients who are being smuggled past security forces.
Chomsky's civil rights resume, spanning 50 years, is deeply rooted in
During the 1950s, she demonstrated against segregated lunch counters.
In the '60s, she abandoned her studies as an anthropology student and
her part-time teaching gig at Rutgers to become an organizer for the
Philadelphia resistance against the Vietnam War.
In 1975, Chomsky co-founded the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia,
but was unable to stay. "I found it heartbreaking," she confesses.
"In juvenile law, the plaintiffs can't change their circumstances.
They are just moved around by adults. It's a matter of which terrible
place they should be in. Should they be in the terrible home or the
inadequate foster home? Because they were juveniles, you could never
empower them to make decisions. It wasn't for me."
The anecdote is revealing. Though contact with clients is a feature
of the job Chomsky usually enjoys, much of what she does can be
Aside from many sleepless nights, her work also lends disturbing
insight into the darker side of human nature. Now more than ever,
Chomsky is convinced in the ability of ordinary people to do monstrous things.
She recounts some of the testimony from a Bosnia war crimes case. One
of her plaintiffs, who had been jailed for 30 days, took the stand
and testified that every day during his incarceration someone he knew
from his village came in and tortured him in a new way. The victim's
nails were bent. Every one of his ribs had been broken. His teeth
were torn from his mouth.
Cases like these torment Chomsky. "People just do awful things to one
another," she says. "I mean, that does give me nightmares."
Still, she's driven to keep going, in part because of childhood lessons.
As a child, she attended the Akiba Academy, a Jewish parochial school
in Bryn Mawr. At the time, World War II and the Holocaust were focal
points for discussion. What fascinated Chomsky wasn't the existence
of the rabid Nazi but the "good German."
"People talked a lot about good Germans," she says. "Why were people
silent? Was it complicit to be silent? If you're silent in the face
of evil then you're complicit. You have an obligation to act."
That obligation drew Chomsky in a new direction as the Vietnam War
ended, leaving a void in her professional life. She knew continuing
to be an organizer after the war wasn't conducive to family life, yet
she wanted to continue contributing to progressive causes. Then she
remembered what a friend had said to her years earlier: "You know,
you ought to go to law school. I don't think you're meant for an
So Chomsky gave Princeton a call. LSATs were being given that
Saturday, and she decided to take the test.
"I hadn't really thought about it," she says. "I thought, 'Well, if I
get in [to law school], I'll go."
She got in.
"It turns out, I love it," she says. "I mean, I love it. I love the
mechanical practice of law. If it had no content, I'd still love it."
Now, neither age nor some minor physical afflictionsshe's had two
knee replacements, one of which stopped her from going to Yemen for a
case a few years agocan keep her down.
And the stage is set for Chomsky's next big undertaking: the
inevitably controversial apartheid lawsuits. Using ATCA again, the
suits will seek to hold several American companies responsible for
supporting the oppressive and racist South African apartheid regime.
"I believe that in authoritarian countries, if there's a
multinational that so dominates the economy that the whole system is
corrupt and autocratic, that if you could get one dictator it won't
matter ... one petty dictator is just replaced by another. So in my
political analysis I say: These corporate cases are important."
The two main apartheid cases seek to apply the same principles to a
number of quintessential American brands. IBM, Ford, GM, Daimler and
Barclay National Bank are all accused of having benefited from and
contributed to apartheid. The auto manufacturers in the case are
accused of supplying vehicles to squash non-white union initiatives.
There is some evidence that they reported union drives to security
forces, causing union leaders to be detained and tortured by security forces.
IBM allegedly supplied computer products and software maintenance to
the South African military and police for a system that sorted and
separated citizens based on their race and political affiliations.
The lawsuit argues that without their relationship with these
companies, South Africa's minority white population would not have
been able to dominate and exploit the overwhelmingly black citizens.
The lawsuit is not without detractors. In April, a Washington Post
op-ed piece by Curtis A. Bradley and Jack L. Goldsmithboth of whom
have represented defendants in ATCA suitsclaimed that using ATCA in
this way is a legal aberration, and should be discontinued for human
rights lawsuits because it will become a sort of judicial imperialism
that will complicate diplomacy and will act as significant tax on
companies in a shaky economic climate.
The authors wrote: "Judicially made corporate human rights litigation
is a luxury we can no longer afford."
Chomsky isn't buying it. "We don't think these things are luxuries,"
she says. "We think they are in the essence of civilized society, of
She notes that there are always people who think we can't afford to
uphold our legal obligationsbe they treaties, human rights law or
"I think that people want to view themselves as decent," says
Chomsky. "So I think we all fool ourselves about things we did that
weren't so nice, that we may have regrets about. But I do think that
part of it has to do with a contempt for people who are poor people,
who are not white people, who are not European in origin."
Despite taking on huge issues like apartheid and corporate behemoths
like IBM and Shell, Chomsky remains skeptical of her own ability to
affect larger change beyond a single case. She says it really is in
the public's hands to tame corporate human rights misconduct.
"So today or for this week people are more aware of what Shell did,
of the environmental effect and the human rights effect," she says.
"Without that, it's really the popular movement not the legal case
that will bring change. I mean, it's nice for these people, but I
don't think it's going to change the world."
Still, Chomsky labors onwith what she calls her "activist
attitude"hoping her efforts add up to some sort of synergy.