More than 13 years after Nigeria executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company has settled a human rights lawsuit brought in a U.S. court on Monday. The plaintiffs claimed victory, but Shell says its multi-million dollar settlement is a humanitarian gesture and that it was not involved in any human rights abuses.
Under the settlement, announced a week after the trial was to have begun, Shell will pay $15.5 million to 10 plaintiffs. They include the families of the late environmental leader Ken-Sarowiwa and eight other Nigerian activists who were executed in 1995. The settlement will also set up a trust in behalf of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta.
The case was brought 13 years ago by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Earth Rights International and private law firms, under a law that allows human rights cases from abroad to be filed in U.S. courts.
It alleged that Shell colluded with Nigeria's military government to commit human rights abuses against Saro-Wiwa's peaceful movement protesting alleged oil company exploitation and pollution in the Niger Delta.
Shell denied the charge, and fought the case for 13 years before settling. Company officials declined to be interviewed, but released a statement saying the settlement was, in their words, a "humanitarian gesture" in "recognition of the tragic events in Ogoni Land - even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place."
Judith Chomsky Brown is one of the attorneys who filed the case for the Center for Constitutional Rights. She said it is a victory for the plaintiffs. "One of the reasons defendants settle is so there won't be a finding that they did what they're accused of. I take their payment of a significant settlement as a recognition that they could well be found liable of these abuses by a jury," she said.
Attorney Jonathan Drimmer advises multi-national corporations but was not involved in this case. He agreed that a large settlement is a victory for the plaintiffs - but says there is also a downside for them.
"If the plaintiffs don't get a full trial, they don't get to establish exactly what it is they say happened. There's not a full airing of the facts and certainly when you talk about corporate complicity, an airing of the facts, explaining the harms that occurred, that does tell a very powerful story and can send a very powerful message," he said.
However, Steve Kretzman of Oil Change International, who was an adviser to Ken Saro-Wiwa, said the settlement will only further - not end - the fight for environmental reforms in oil company practices in Nigeria - particularly for an end to toxic gas flaring.
"I think that Shell has gotten the message from, not only the trial but the huge campaign that developed around the trial, that people are still very much watching what is happening in the Niger Delta. This is a drop in terms of what they need to do, and for justice really to be done, they need to end gas flaring, they need to clean up their historical oil spills in Ogoni and throughout the Niger Delta, and we need to go from there," he said.
International outrage at the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other environmental activists contributed to the fall of Nigeria's military government. Shell no longer does business in the Ogoni lands. But in other parts of the Niger Delta, indigenous opposition to multinational oil companies' presence has become increasingly violent in recent years.