Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Saro-Wiwa vs Shell

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell will today be dragged kicking and screaming into a federal court in New York City to face allegations that it is complicit in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta.

Most notably, Shell will be taken to task for its role in the public execution of activist, Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995, who along with eight others, was hanged after being found guilty of incitement to murder following the deaths of four tribal elders. However, questions remain over whether Shell in some way influenced the trial's outcome.

Saro-Wiwa, an outspoken critic of the foreign oil companies' operations in the Niger Delta and non-violent human rights activist for the Ogoni people, protested his innocence throughout the trial whilst then dictator of Nigeria, General Abacha, ignored pleas for clemency from the international community.

In November 1995, he was hanged and his body burned with acid and dumped in an unmarked grave. The Nigerian government was slammed by the international community for its actions and kicked out of the Commonwealth. John Major, British Prime Minister at the time said it was "a fraudulent trial, a bad verdict, an unjust sentence. It has now been followed by judicial murder".

The story didn't end with his death and the final statement of Saro-Wiwa at his trial has come back to haunt Shell:

"I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial... The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and... 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."

Despite Shell's squirming protestations, they could now be about to face a heavy dose of medicine that may "change the behavior of the industry pretty quickly". The company are being challenged in an American court by Saro-Wiwa's family who are demanding justice be meted out to Shell for "human rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention."

The lawsuit has been filed using the 1789 Alien Tort Statute which "grants non-US citizens the right to file lawsuits for international human rights violations" as well as the Torture Victim Protection Right which "allows individuals to seek damages in the U.S. for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the violations take place".

According to the New York Times, some accusations include: "that Shell employees were present when two witnesses were offered bribes to testify against Mr. Saro-Wiwa... Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s brother Owens has also stated that Shell’s managing director, Brian Anderson (now retired), told him, “If you call off the campaign, maybe we can do something for your brother.

Of course, Shell deny all accusations, pointing out how they eventually faxed the Nigerian government (at the 11th hour) asking that Saro-Wiwa's life be spared. Mr Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr, however says: "They weren't the hangmen. But their fingerprints are all over it."

A victim of Shell - Image by usnico

The execution of Saro-Wiwa is just the tip of the iceberg. The lawsuit will also bring to light the brutal repression of the Ogoni people by the Nigerian government during the 1990s. These people, of the Ogoni region in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, have faced nothing but environmental devastation and human rights abuses since the foreign oil companies moved in to profit from the area's vast oil resources. In a country where 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, 85 percent of oil revenues go to only one percent of the population.

The non-violent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed to put a stop to these abuses but experienced more violence in return for its campaigns, which were brought to international attention by Saro-Wiwa's writing and tireless campaigning. Faced by mounting pressure from campaigners, it is alleged that Shell enlisted the help of Nigerian government forces to quell the dissent and "one month after the executions of the Ogoni Nine, Shell signed an agreement to invest $4 billion in a liquefied natural gas project in Nigeria".

A gas flare in Nigeria - Image by Rhys

Although there is no longer any oil pumped in the Ogoni region, environmental destruction of the Niger Delta continues to this day. One of the most horrific abuses is the persistence in flaring gas, a way of dealing with waste by-products from drilling for oil. Gas is costly to separate from the more lucrative crude oil, instead, the gas is simply burned off, pumping huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

After Russia, Nigeria is the second worst culprit for flaring gas, a process which releases about 400 million tonnes of CO2 every year, according to a 2007 report from the World Bank's Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership,

Flaring also has a more immediate effect on the Niger Delta. According to a report from Climate Justice, "the flares contain a cocktail of toxins that affect the health and livelihood of local communities, exposing Niger Delta residents to an increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer".

The gases released into the atmosphere from flaring have also led to acid rain forcing some residents to turn to asbestos roofs for their homes. This acid rain has also combined with oil spills into the Niger (a spill compared to being the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez every year, destroying one of the world's largest mangroves) to severely degrade the soils that the Nigerian people live and work on. Despite a ban on gas flaring in Nigeria taking effect in January this year, flaring continues.

The lawsuit also begins in the shadow of a new wave of violence across the Delta. Since the 13th May, Nigeria's Joint Task Force (JTF) have carried out attacks in the region in an effort to weed out militant groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, who have waged a bloody campaign to wrest control of the Delta's oil supplies from the foreign corporations.

According to reports received by Amnesty International
, hundreds of civilians including women and children have been killed in the crossfire between the two sides. Victor Burubo, spokesman for the Ijaw National Congress, which represents the region's largest ethnic group, said the violence has “resulted in over a thousand deaths, because we dared to ask for our rights".

Shell's first oil well in Nigeria - Image by Rhys

This is nothing new to this continent. Colonialism never ended; it's still alive and kicking. The colonists simply took on a new look. Rather than the sovereigns of England, France, Portugal and Germany lording it over the natives, we now have the CEOs of Shell, Chevron, De Beers and Areva. Wherever there is a valuable natural resource, there will be Western multinationals raping and pillaging the land and the people, destroying lives and habitats as they please.

Shell are quaking in their boots, as is the rest of the oil industry. A decision that falls in favour of Saro-Wiwa's family could pave the way for future human rights cases to be brought against corporations owned or operating in the US. As I write, Chevron are being hauled over hot coals by a coalition of indigenous people from the Ecuadorian Amazon for their destruction of vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest. With some luck, both companies will have to face the consequences of their actions.

“My father always said that one day Shell would be on trial,” said Mr. Saro-Wiwa Jr. “It’s important for those involved in the conspiracy against my father to be held to account. It’s a communal exorcism, if you like, for Shell to account and bear responsibility for what it did.”

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