Judge Rules Shell Oil May Be Liable in Activist's Murder

If anything can comfort us when a heroic activist dies at the hands of a cruel regime, it's the prospect that justice will eventually be done. Ken Saro-Wiwa, whom I was fortunate enough to call a friend, was such an activist. And while nothing can make up for his unlawful execution in 1995 by the Nigerian government, I take some satisfaction in a recent court ruling that Royal Dutch Shell may be held liable for his death.

I first heard of Ken at a meeting with a delegation of Ogoni activists in June 1993 at the United Nations International Human Rights Conference in Vienna. I found their gentle demeanor deeply impressive -- especially considering the heartbreaking stories they recounted of the destruction of their homeland by Shell contractors and their brutal treatment by Nigerian security forces.

The Ogoni had lived peacefully as farmers and fishermen in the Niger River delta for centuries. All that changed when Shell discovered oil in the delta in 1958. Oil quickly became the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, providing 80 percent of the government's revenue -- and a powerful incentive for the state to seize tribal land for further exploration. Since then, Shell's drilling and pipelines have devastated the livelihoods of the Ogoni, leaving their waters polluted and their land poisoned.

I also learned at that meeting that the leader of the Movement for Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, had been arrested by the Nigerian government en route to the conference. It was immediately clear to us at The Body Shop that we had to do whatever we could to help the Ogoni in their struggle against this giant corporation and its brutal protectors, beginning with a letter-writing campaign to demand Ken's release. Ken was released from prison that August, but was rearrested the following year on trumped-up charges, along with eight other Ogoni environmental activists. In October 1995, to our horror, they were sentenced to death.

During the next few weeks, we did everything in our power to save them. But despite the redoubling of our efforts to publicize their plight and that of the Ogoni people -- a campaign for which Ken expressed his gratitude in a moving letter smuggled from his prison cell in Port Harcourt -- they were executed in November. Their deaths provoked a global outcry.

In 1999, Ken's family filed a civil lawsuit against Shell for its role in the persecution and illegal execution of the activists. The suit, Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., was brought on the basis of two U.S. anti-torture statutes, the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. It charges the multinational oil giant with complicity in the detention, trial and subsequent hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen, an Ogoni youth activist, as well other egregious human rights abuses.

Thankfully, the recent ruling by U.S. Federal Court Judge Kimba Wood means that Shell can be held liable in the U.S. for its role in these crimes. It also permits another claim against Shell to move forward under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. And on top of that, Judge Wood has said that the facts presented by Ken's family about Shell's complicity, if true, may well constitute crimes against humanity under international law.

"Shell had direct involvement in human rights violations against the Ogoni people," said Judith Chomsky, an attorney for the Wiwa family. "Any company that profits from crimes against humanity should be brought to justice. When they do business in the U.S., they should be made to answer for their actions in U. S. courts."

These executions weren't Shell's first collaboration with the Nigerian regime. In 1993, Shell called in a government hit squad (dubbed the "kill-and-go mob" by locals) against the Ogoni after claims that they had sabotaged Shell equipment. Shell's earlier requests for government help with Ogoni "troublemakers" had resulted in murders and massacres, and this instance differed only in scale: Security forces killed about 2,000 Ogoni and leveled 30 villages.

For its part, Shell -- which would later decline to intervene on Ken's behalf on the grounds that "it is not for a commercial organization to interfere with the legal processes of a sovereign state such as Nigeria" -- reportedly helped transport the troops. In fact, The New York Times confirmed that Shell not only transported, but even paid salary bonuses to soldiers taking part in the attacks on the Ogoni.

"This ruling means that the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni colleagues may yet get some measure of justice for the unlawful executions and other abuses in which Shell was complicit," said co-counsel Richard Herz, an attorney with EarthRights International. "More broadly, it sends a strong message to other multinational companies that they cannot participate in egregious human rights abuses with impunity."

Ken himself foresaw such a turn of events. In his last statement to the military tribunal that convicted him, he warned that Shell would pay for its actions: "Shell is here on trial. The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come."

The ruling against Shell provides a hopeful contrast to the Bush administration's success in quashing a human-rights lawsuit filed by villagers in the Indonesian province of Aceh. That suit charged that U.S.-based ExxonMobil contracted with Indonesian military and militia forces to murder, torture and rape local residents who were interfering with the company's ability to profit there. Similar suits targeting oil companies for human rights abuses have been brought against Unocal by members of ethnic minorities in Burma (Myanmar), against Chevron-Texaco by other Nigerian groups, and against Texaco by Ecuadorean indigenous communities.

While the sickening price paid by Ken Saro-Wiwa and God knows how many other Nigerians is horrifiying, we can take courage from his example -- and from the idea that with commitment, justice is still within reach. To force a global oil corporation out from behind the cover of a corrupt and ruthless government -- not just in the streets, but in a court of law -- is no small achievement. And it sends a powerful message: Even though, like Exxon in Indonesia, they may sometimes dodge responsibility, multinational corporations no longer have carte blanche to abuse human rights, whether directly or by proxy.

Besides holding Shell to account for its criminal abuses of human rights, Judge Wood's ruling helps to advance the cause of liberty in Nigeria and around the world. It looks like Ken's dreams of freedom weren't in vain.

Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a lifelong activist. Her latest book, "Take It Personally" is an in-your-face challenge to corporate globalization. Email her at anita@anitaroddick.com.

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