Will Shell Oil Company Pay for Human Rights Abuses?

| February 29, 2012

Charles Wiwa, one of the petitioners fled Nigeria in 1996. He describes how he was horsewhipped and clubbed in an open-air market by 18 soldiers while thousands watched. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

It was a period of horror for the people of Ogoni State, Nigeria. Local religious leaders, students and civic leaders gathered to protest against corporate oil giant, Shell. Shell, they said, was ruining their farmlands with oil spills, was not paying to clean up the environmental hazards it was leaving behind, and was not doing anything to help boost the local economy. The people decided to hold a peaceful protest. Among them were nine men who would later become known as the Ogoni Nine; among them, popular author, environmentalist, and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and Dr. Barinem Kiobel. Both of whom were arrested and later executed by hanging. The executions occured on November 10, 1995.

Today, the son of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and wife of the late Dr. Kiobel, now both legal US residents through political asylum, are seeking justice for themselves and for their loved ones. They have taken their case to the United States Supreme Court which heard oral argument on both sides of the issue this morning.

In the case, Kiobel, et al. v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, et al., Kiobel’s widow Esther Kiobel who was herself a victm of the brutality of rape and beatings in the days leading up to her husband’s arrest and eventual killing is seeking to hold Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) accountable for the atrocities she and others suffered several years ago.

But the issue before the court could either make or break the victims who have sought justice and a sense of peace and closure for so long. It is their last ditch effort after the trial court and federal appeals courts have all ruled against them.

According to the petition, Shell conspired with the Nigerian government, under then General Sani Abacha, to arrest, torture, rape, beat, and kill protestors in an attempt to silence their opposition to Shell’s presence and destructive activities in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The suit was brought under the Alien Tort Statute which allows victims and survivors of human rights abuses to seek justice in US courts, raising the question of whether foreign victims of war crimes and other human rights abuses have a fair shot of seeking justice against multinational corporations in American courts while trying to prove that such corporations were complicit in abuses against them and others in their homelands.

In legal briefs submitted to the Supreme Court, Shell argued that it cannot and should not be held responsible for the abuses and human rights violations because corporations are immune from laws that prohibit complicity in human rights violations and crimes against humanity. And while Shell might have a point, they are forgetting the celebration they enjoyed only a few months ago when the Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled that corporations were legal persons (individuals) with rights.

An opinion on today’s hearing won’t be out until sometime this summer, but the case and its potential implications for multinational corporatons has corporations, the legal community, and those seeking justice waiting with pegged ears and baited breath. Can these “legal persons with rights” also be held accountable and responsible for its atrocious actions against humanity? Or is their “personhood” just suitable for the purposes of making unlimited political campaign contributions? Surely, the Court will not let us down by tippy-toeing to the conclusion that corporations are legal persons with rights but certainly no responsibilities. We certainly hope not.

Afrikan Goddess Magazine will closely monitor this case and provide you with updates as we receive them. We found it especially heartwarming that the petitioners (Esther Kiobel, Charles Wiwa and others) have the backing of the United States Government. See their amicus brief in support of the petitioners.

“Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide. If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow. We must keep on striving to make the world a better place for all of mankind – each one contributing his bit, in his or her own way.” Ken Saro-Wiwa (written from his prison cell six months before he was hanged).

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AFRIKAN GODDESS MAGAZINE is a subsidiary of Afrikan Goddess Media, LLC. Our content is designed with the educated, professional, classy, charming and sassy African woman in mind. We encourage women to express their creativity and ideas through writing, and also serve as a platform for meaningful discussions and exchange of ideas.

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