In 1995, environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military government, along with eight other Ogoni activists, for protesting against the devastation of the Niger Delta by oil companies, particularly Royal Dutch Shell.
On May 27, 2009, Shell will stand trial for collaboration and complicity in Saro-Wiwa’s murder. 14 years after his execution, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s sons Ken and Owens Wiwa are the plaintiffs in Wiwa v Shell.
Saro-Wiwa was convicted by a military tribunal in 1995. He was not given proper legal representation, a fair trial, or the right to appeal the court’s ruling. Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) and alerted the world to the atrocities against human rights, as well as the environment degradation being committed by big oil companies in Nigeria. The Ogoni Nine were hanged based on “trumped-up charges“, in which Shell is accused of collaborating with Nigerian authorities. Shell’s official statement on human rights in Nigeria is:
In the late 1990′s, SPDC was criticised for continuing to do business in Nigeria because of the country’s human rights record under the military government of the time. Some people thought that we should pull out of Nigeria; others advocated that we should have used our ‘influence’ to force the government to improve its record. We did, however, speak out both publicly and privately about human rights issues on a number of occasions. For instance, during the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogonis, we publicly stated that the accused had a right to a fair legal process. Before the trial, we said Ken Saro-Wiwa had a right to freely hold and air his views. After the trial verdict was announced, we said publicly that carrying out the death penalty would damage the process of reconciliation in Ogoni land. The then Chairman of the Shell Group also sent a personal letter to the Nigerian Head of State appealing for clemency on humanitarian grounds. Sadly, this and other appeals from concerned countries, organisations and individuals went unheard.
Unfortunately for Big Oil, environmental and human rights groups aren’t convinced Shell tried to prevent these human rights violations. Shortly after the executions, Thilo Bode, Executive Director of Greenpeace International stated,
Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged today for speaking out against the environmental damage to the Niger Delta caused by Shell Oil through its 37 years of drilling in the region. Ken Saro Wiwa was campaigning for what Greenpeace considers the most basic of human rights: the right for clean air, land and water. His only crime was his success in bringing his cause to international attention…If Shell and the Nigerian military think that the hanging of Saro-Wiwa has removed national and international outrage, they’re wrong. Greenpeace today reaffirms its dedication to continue the campaign against environmental destruction by the oil industry.
In a closing statement to the military tribunal, Saro-Wiwa himself expressed:
I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and the lessons learnt here may prove useful to it for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished. The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.
That day has finally come in the form of a civil lawsuit brought on by the families of the victims. Not only is Shell accused of participating in the murder of the Ogoni Nine, but they oil giant is also facing charges of participating in torture, illegal detention, forced exile and shootings of Ogoni protesters.
The civil suit is based upon an obscure law against piracy from 1789. In 2004, the US Supreme Court ruled the law could be used by foreigners against defendants, including multinational corporations like Shell, for crimes against humanity. Specifically, the suit alleges Shell consistently conspired with Nigerian military authorities to use violence against peaceful Ogoni protestors, including providing weapons, money, and logistical support.
The significance of Wiwa v Shell goes beyond holding Shell responsible for murder and environmental degradation in Nigeria. If Shell is convicted, the case will provide precedence for holding transnational companies owned or operated in the United States responsible for human rights atrocities committed overseas. Unfortunately the peaceful protests of Saro-Wiwa’s day have evolved to violence, kidnappings, sabotage, corruption, and piracy in the Niger Delta.
Image: Peace Council