Shell trial: end of the line for corporate impunity?

27 May 2009 admin

Jury selection for the historic Wiwa v Shell trial in New York was delayed until further notice on Tuesday, but a media storm is brewing over oil multinational Shell, who is charged with complicity in human rights abuses in Nigeria, including the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues in 1995. A verdict on Shell’s role in the executions could be a matter of weeks away but there is a longer way to go before the impunity enjoyed by executives in the oil industry becomes a thing of the past.

By its nature, oil extraction is a dirty business increasingly reliant on unconventional sources of oil such as Canada’s tar sands, and oil supplies in countries like Nigeria, where profits are carved up between multinationals and successive regimes, while communities in oil producing areas live in poverty. Executives and their investors  know this much, but they will be alarmed by the idea that Shell, the largest operator in Nigeria, may have blood on its hands.

The Wiwa v Shell trial is set to expose the intimate relationship between the former director of Shell Nigeria, Brian Anderson, and the notoriously corrupt military dictator Gen Sani Abacha. Anderson is accused of collaborating with the Nigerian military in brutal crackdowns against the Ogoni people, which culminated in the execution of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues. As the conflict in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta claimed more victims earlier this month, with Amnesty reporting ‘hundreds’ of civilians already killed in military raids, Shell executives could also face criticism over the human toll of ‘security’ in the region.

Human rights abuses are a daily by-product of Shell’s operations in Nigeria, and have been so from the earliest days of oil production. Ogoniland has been devastated by Shell’s non-stop gas flaring and repeated oil spills for over three decades. Fishing waters are barren, crops have failed and livelihoods have been lost. Shell are still abusing human rights on a daily basis by flaring gas, which exposes communities to deadly toxins like benzene. Any company with a serious concern for human rights would end this practise immediately.

Though the courts have ordered oil companies to end gas flaring in 2005, Shell have exploited lax environmental laws and the absence of safeguards against human rights abuses to continue gas flaring in unimaginable quantities.

Plaintiffs in Niger Delta with little experience of litigation and limited access to expert witnesses often fail to win justice in Nigeria. Communities and activists are now seeking justice elsewhere by teaming up with human rights lawyers in partnerships that open up a new front in the struggle for corporate accountability. The U.S. Alien Tort Statute, used in Wiwa v Shell, provides one vehicle for companies or individuals to be held accountable for human rights abuses abroad. Activists are bringing cases against Shell in the Netherlands and other multinationals in France and Ecuador.

The struggle for accountability is not without challenges. Wiwa v Shell spent twelve years working through the US justice system. Shell have enlisted some of the highest paid lawyers in corporate world to defend themselves, and they have fought hard to prevent the case from going to trial. Against the odds, the Ogoni plaintiffs are about to force one of the world’s largest corporations into the courtroom.

The high-rise, civic architecture of the New York District Court could hardly be further removed from the polluted creeks and poor villages of the Niger Delta. As the court is due to hear about the brutal shootings, detainment and torture in Ogoniland, there is a larger community who want to see justice for the daily impact of big oil on their land and lives.

It is imperative that Shell is held to account for full the human and environmental cost of their operations. That includes the impact of daily gas flaring on the people of the Niger Delta. No victories for corporate accountability will be won overnight, but as this week has shown, campaigning and global court actions will highlight the crimes against humanity that complicit multinationals would rather the world forgot.

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