Wiwa v Shell: The day of reckoning

June 10, 2009

Ben Amunwa-Ben Amunwa is a campaigner with oil industry watchdog Platform, where he runs Remember Saro-Wiwa, a project that uses art and activism to raise awareness about the impact of the oil in the Niger Delta. The opinions expressed are his own.-

When the news broke of a settlement in the Wiwa v Shell case, a cacophony of responses soon flooded my inbox. Hailed as a victory for human rights by some, others felt disappointed that Shell could throw money in the face of justice. In such a high profile and emotive legal battle, holding oil giant Shell responsible for human rights abuses in Nigeria, including the execution of charismatic activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, hopes were inevitably high.

A settlement was always going to stir some controversy. Activists wanted to see Shell on trial for aiding and abetting the Nigerian military in crackdowns on the Ogoni people in the 1990s. Myself and many others travelled to New York expecting a trial, but came home empty-handed. Yet none of us had spent hours locked in settlement negotiations, nor lived with the burden of a 12-year litigation, not to mention the personal trauma of losing our loved ones to brutal violence. There is a growing consensus that the settlement is a victory in favor of the plaintiffs, and a step forward on the long road to corporate accountability.

Eager to flex its public-relations muscles, Shell claimed they agreed to a settlement for “compassionate” reasons. A statement on Tuesday said:

“Shell today agreed to settle a court case in New York related to allegations in connection with the Nigerian military government’s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others in 1995, making a humanitarian gesture to set up a trust fund to benefit the Ogoni people…Shell has always maintained the allegations were false… we were prepared to go to court to clear our name.”

In spite of Shell’s official denials, all the signs point towards complicity. No multinational company settles out of court for $15.5 million due to “humanitarian” or “compassionate” impulses. According to attorneys, this payout is far higher than similar cases.

The real reason why Shell settled is because the evidence compiled by the plaintiffs, was damning enough to force an out of court settlement. Far from being willing to defend itself before a jury, Shell has spent the last 12 years fighting to stay out of the courtroom, and to keep the evidence out of the public eye. If Shell was innocent of any wrongdoing, why didn’t they tough it out in court?

For the plaintiffs, the prospect of an appeals process adding another 4 years to the litigation, and the fact that they could only expect monetary damages anyway made a settlement worthwhile.

The grievances of local people in the Niger Delta, and the injustices that Ken Saro-Wiwa fought against are far from settled with this case. Campaigners will now be publicising the evidence gathered by lawyers about Shell’s partnership with Nigerian military, until the company comes clean about its role in the violence.

If Shell has any genuine concern for the dignity of the Ogoni people, or other communities in the Niger Delta, it would put an end to the daily environmental devastation caused by gas flares and oil spills. These practices have poisoned communities and choked livelihoods for as long as Shell has been producing oil. This daily abuse of human dignity and rights shows just how much more needs to be done before justice is served in the Niger Delta.

The Wiwa case was always about the claims of 10 individuals, and it is the first victory in what we hope will be a long line of cases that hold corporations to account for violations of international law.

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