Ken Saro-Wiwa: the day of truth?

Original Publication Date: 
20 May, 2009

It will send shockwaves through boardrooms if the predictions of the executed campaigner are proved right in a US court

As shareholders gather today in London and The Hague for Shell's annual general meeting the board is facing difficult questions over the company's environmental and human rights record in Nigeria. ShellGuilty, an international coalition of campaign groups including Platform, Friends of the Earth and Oil Change International, are demonstrating outside the meeting to demand an end to Shell's practice of gas flaring in Nigeria, and to draw attention to a landmark human rights court case that starts in the US in a week's time.

Shell is due to stand trial in New York for human rights abuses including the company's alleged role in the 1995 execution of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues. Before he was hanged, Saro-Wiwa predicted that one day Shell would be held accountable for "the crimes of ecological war the company has waged in the [Niger] Delta". The case in New York – brought under the US alien tort statute – offers an opportunity for individuals who were tortured and family members of those who were killed in Nigeria to make formal allegations against Shell in a court of law.

A series of legal cases have been consolidated into one trial known as Wiwa v Shell, brought on behalf of the families by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Earth Rights International (ERI). The cases aim to hold Shell accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria, including complicity in summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention as well as for requesting, financing and assisting the Nigerian military – which used deadly force to repress opposition to Shell.

Shell vigorously denies all the allegations in the New York case.

Shell faces a legal assault on multiple fronts, with the company also defending itself in a simultaneous case in the Netherlands brought by Nigerian fisherfolk and farmers whose land and livelihoods have suffered due to oil spills and contamination, allegedly caused by Shell.

One of the main rallying points in Ken Saro-Wiwa's crusade against Shell's activities in the Niger Delta was the devastating impact of gas flaring. The ShellGuilty coalition is using publicity generated by the trial to renew pressure on Shell to stop this toxic practice, which has been going on in the region for almost 50 years.

When oil is extracted, there is often a certain amount of natural gas as well. Instead of pumping this gas back underground or using it to meet the energy needs of local communities, it is cheaper to simply burn off this gas. Although Shell has repeatedly said that it intends to stop burning off gas, the flares are toxic and harmful, which is why they are strictly regulated in countries such as the US or the UK. Such flaring is only cheap when environmental and human costs are not taken into consideration.

While a slick PR team has navigated Shell through numerous allegations of human rights abuses and localised pollution in the Delta, the climatic impacts of gas flaring are becomingly increasingly difficult for the company to shrug off. Even without taking flaring into account, Shell's 2007 global operations were responsible for pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all of the UK's domestic emissions combined.

In addition to this, according to a recent report by an energy journalist, the amount of gas that is being wastefully flared by oil companies in the Niger Delta is equivalent to one third of the North Sea's annual gas production. Gas flaring has technically been illegal in Nigeria since 1984, but oil companies including Shell continue this polluting practice with impunity.

Speaking before the military tribunal that sentenced him to death in 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa said: "I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial … There is no doubt in my mind that the crimes of the company's dirty war against the Ogoni people will be punished." Fourteen years on, if Ken Saro-Wiwa's prediction is borne out in the New York court case, it will send shockwaves through corporate boardrooms worldwide and send a signal that corporations will be held liable for human rights abuses no matter where or when they occur.

The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2009/may/19/shell-ken-saro-wiwa-niger>

Kevin Smith works in TNI’s Carbon Trade project http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?act_id=19515