US/NIGERIA: Shell: corporate impunity goes on trial

Could this be the beginning of the end of the age of impunity? Fourteen years
after the judicial murder of the Nigerian
novelist, environmentalist and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa
, Shell
is about to go on trial in New York, accused of complicity
in his execution
. This represents a remarkable moment in the struggle
between people and multinational corporations. Regardless of the outcome of the
trial, the fact that one of the planet's most powerful companies finds itself in
the dock changes everything. From now on, no transnational corporation involved
in possible human rights abuses will feel completely safe.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, with eight other Ogoni rights activists, was executed by
Nigeria's military dictatorship in 1995. The men were a constant irritant to the
generals, reminding the world that their lands in the Niger Delta were being
wrecked and their health and livelihoods destroyed by gas flaring, oil spills
and military attacks. Imprisonment and beatings failed to shut them up. So the
government constructed false charges against these men, paid people to pose as
witnesses and hanged them.

The plaintiffs claim that Shell, which still has major operations in the
Niger Delta, paid Nigerian troops to terrorise the Ogoni and bribed two of the
witnesses at the trial of the activists. Shell denies these charges and claims
it intervened to try to stop the executions, but there is no doubt that it
worked alongside one of Africa's most brutal regimes. It also continues to
pollute the Ogoni's land today by burning off the gas from its oil wells and
this was one of the subjects over which I clashed with Shell's chief executive
Jeroen van der Veer during our
fierce exchange
a little while ago.

Aside from the damage to the health of the Ogoni and their environment, gas
flaring in Nigeria produces more carbon dioxide than all other activities in the
whole of sub-Saharan Africa. One day, perhaps, that might be the subject of a
lawsuit too.

What this trial shows is that people like the Ogoni, though they may be poor
and though they may possess little power, can no longer be treated as
disposable. For two centuries corporations and governments from the rich world
have treated the people they encounter overseas as nothing but obstacles to the
extraction of resources, who - when they could not be enslaved to assist that
work - had to be disposed of as expeditiously as possible: by bribery,
deception, terror or massacre. The richer the resources a land possesses, the
more viciously its inhabitants are treated. Now these inconvenient people might
begin to be seen as human beings.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 107 Energy
  • 183 Environment

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