A much anticipated human rights trial concerning oil giant Shell's conduct in Nigeria ended this week before it began.
The Nigerian plaintiffs, who accused Shell of complicity in the execution of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa and other environmental activists, agreed to settle the case for $15.5 million. Shell admitted no wrongdoing, characterizing the settlement as a "humanitarian gesture."
Saro-Wiwa gained international renown in the 1990s as an outspoken opponent of the pervasive poverty and pollution in his native Ogoni land, part of the oil-rich Niger Delta. The grassroots campaign he inspired challenged the relationship between Western oil companies and President Sani Abacha, whose military regime marked one of the darkest chapters in Nigeria's history.
Abacha ordered the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the other activists in 1995, after a cursory military trial on trumped-up charges.
The suit against Shell, which survived more than a decade of legal challenges, accused the company of, among other things, conspiring to bribe two witnesses to testify against Saro-Wiwa during his trial.
"We believe this settlement will assist the process of reconciliation and peace in Ogoni land, which is our primary concern," Malcolm Brinded, Shell's director of exploration and production, said in a statement.
Money from the settlement will go to the plaintiffs, including Ken Saro-Wiwa's son, and to a trust in the name of the Ogoni people, supporting initiatives in education, agriculture and business development.
"Shell has always maintained the allegations were false," Brinded said. "While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people, which is important for peace and stability in the region."
Although Shell admitted no wrongdoing, the plaintiffs' lawyers, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, said they were satisfied with the outcome.
"The settlement represents one more step towards holding corporations accountable for complicity in human rights violations, wherever they may be committed," their statement read. "We hope that this settlement provides another building block in the efforts to forge a legal system that holds violators accountable wherever they may be and prevents future violations."
The suit against Shell was based on the controversial, once nearly forgotten Alien Tort Statute, signed into law more than two centuries ago by President George Washington.
To plaintiffs' lawyers, the statute helps to level the playing field for the poor and disenfranchised in a world dominated by powerful business interests. Defendants tend to view the law differently, regarding it as an unreasonable burden on American companies (or on foreign companies such as Shell that have a significant presence in the United States).
The Shell suit would have been the third corporate Alien Tort Statue suit to make it all the way to trial. In both of the first two such cases, including one involving Chevron last fall, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.
Some Guy - Salt Lake City, UT
This is a troubling trend. Multinational corporations get people killed, and all they have to do is pay a fine.
Attorney General Eric Holder was responsible for getting Chiquita Brands (formerly United Fruit) off the hook for paying fascists to kill union activists in Colombia.
The people who organized deaths, should be charged with murder.
This should give people a clue as to who rules the world. Right now it's powerful corporations. Not citizens. That's an illusion.
Laguna Niguel, United States
Always and especially with global commerce corruption must be addressed and contained. Companies such as Shell in this case must be held accountable for their actions and human rights abuses. Their negative footprint is all over the globe. This is long overdue in the case of Shell, but there are many more and more to come. They are destroying the tropical forests (sources of future medicines) and undermining local economies.
Too little to late. Just another 'Shell' game.
Charles Uzoanya - phoenix, AZ
This is an outrage, $15.5 million is nothing to Shell, a multi-billion dollar a year company. That does not make up for the decades of pillaging that has gone on in that side of the world. It is absurd that no one has been held fully accountable for the death of Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa and $15 million does not even begin to atone for his loss. Shell and its management need to be prosecuted for all the damage that they have done to that land and their crimes against humanity.
Braimoh Osas - firstname.lastname@example.org, Nigeria
I want to commend what Shell has done. I will be glad if other multinational companies can emulate what Shell has done.