The oil company Shell stands accused of crimes against humanity over its activities in the oil-rich Niger Delta of southern Nigeria. On May 26 a Manhattan federal court will hear a lawsuit brought by three alleged victims of attacks and relatives of seven activists killed from 1990 to 1995, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The plaintiffs claim Shell’s Nigerian unit assisted the government in the abuse and murder of opponents of the company’s operations in the Niger Delta. The trial will excite huge interest on the part of multinational companies and human rights bodies, because the outcome could have a bearing on the issue of corporate accountability in the developing world.
From the early 1990s, non-violent protests began among Ogoni people in southern Nigeria, unhappy about the impact of oil exploration, which was destroying the environment that they depended on. Between 1990 and 1995, Nigerian soldiers conducted massive, brutal raids against the Ogoni to repress the growing protest movement. In 1990 Saro-Wiwa, a well-known journalist and activist, helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, bringing its case against Shell’s destruction of the environment to an international audience. A year later the Ogoni nine were arrested on what were widely regarded to have been trumped-up charges and sentenced to death. The military campaign of repression led to some 2,000 Ogoni being killed, some 30,000 made homeless.
Shell is alleged to have appropriated land and polluted the air and water in the Ogoni homeland. According to the complaint, Shell recruited, financed and assisted Nigerian police and military in attacking villages and suppressing the movement. They hold Shell partially responsible for torture, illegal detention, forced exile and shootings of hundreds of Ogoni protesters during the 1990s. The lawsuit also charges Shell with conspiring with the Nigerian military dictatorship in the prosecution of the leaders of the MOSOP. Shell is accused of bribing witnesses to give false testimony, ultimately leading to a death sentence for nine men.
There is a long history of Shell’s involvement in collusion with the Nigerian government, in curtailing democratic protests. In 1987, Shell In response to a public demonstration in the Iko region, called in the Mobile Police Force (known as locally as the Kill and Go), who were transported in three company speedboats. Two people were killed, nearly forty houses destroyed and 350 people made homeless. A peaceful demonstration was held by the Etche people in 1990, “because they had seen Shell continually exploit their land without adequate compensation”. Shell specifically requested the Mobile Police Force. The MPF subsequently massacred eighty people and destroyed 495 houses, as well as countless vehicles.
In 2005 Shell admitted, ” Due to the security situation in the Niger Delta, the Nigerian government from time to time deploys teams of combined forces to patrol areas around our facilities. These forces are paid by the government and, when requested by the government, we provide logistics support”. At least 17 people were reported to have been killed and two women raped when soldiers raided the Ijaw community of Odioma, Bayelsa State. The attack was carried out by a police unit, whose members were reported to have been recruited by a sub-contractor of Shell. Over a period of a few days, around 80 per cent of the homes in Odioma were destroyed.
The trial follows a series of similar cases against some of the world’s biggest oil companies over alleged crimes in developing countries. Chevron could face up to $27 billion in liability in Ecuador for polluting the jungle, and Exxon Mobil is being sued by Indonesian villagers who say soldiers hired to guard a natural gas plant committed human rights violations. A Birmingham, Alabama, jury ruled in July 2008 that Drummond Ltd., a U.S. coal producer, wasn’t liable for the deaths of union leaders at a company mine in Colombia. In December a San Francisco jury cleared Chevron of responsibility for the 1998 deaths, shootings and torture of Nigerian protesters.
US human rights lawyers have brought a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution, crimes against humanity and torture. But it has taken years for the first of these cases to come to court. A defeat for Shell would be the first time a company has been held liable in civil law for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
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This post was written by Christopher Vasey