Wednesday, June 10, 2009

1789 US statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, allowing noncitizens to file cases in US courts for human rights abuses occurring overseas


Shell settles Nigerian human rights suit for 15.5 million dollars

Published: 9 June 2009 09:11 | Changed: 9 June 2009 16:05

By AP, Reuters

Royal Dutch Shell agreed to a 15.5 million US dollar (11,2 million euro) settlement Monday to end a lawsuit alleging that the oil giant was complicit in the executions of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and other civilians by Nigeria's former military regime in the 1990s.
Members of the Ogoni community demonstrate in front of the court in New York.   Photo AP
Members of the Ogoni community demonstrate in front of the court in New York.
Photo AP

Shell, which continues to operate in Nigeria, said it agreed to settle the lawsuit in hopes of aiding the "process of reconciliation." But Europe's largest oil company acknowledged no wrongdoing in the 1995 hanging deaths of six people, including poet Saro-Wiwa.

"Shell has always maintained the allegations were false," said Malcolm Brinded, Shell's executive director for exploration and production. "While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people, which is important for peace and stability in the region," he said. "This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered."

In the 1990s protesters, who campaigned nonviolently for a fairer share of Nigeria's oil wealth for the poor and against environmental damage by the industry, were convicted of murder in a trial that human rights groups labelled a sham. Protests led by Saro-Wiwa forced Shell in 1993 to abandon its oil fields in Ogoniland, a tiny part of the Niger Delta whose people Saro-Wiwa represented.

The settlement came as the more than decade-long dispute was due to go to trial in the US. "We litigated with Shell for 13 years and, at the end of the day, the plaintiffs are going to be compensated for the human rights violations they suffered," said Paul Hoffman, a lawyer for the victims' families who had brought the cases along with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "Had we tried the case and won, the plaintiffs were still looking at years of appeals," he said.

Hoffman said that 5 million dollars would go into a trust for the benefit of the Ogoni people. The rest of the money would go to lawyers' fees and compensation for the families.

"I think he would be happy with this," Saro-Wiwa's 40-year-old son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., said in a telephone interview from London. Though Shell denied any wrongdoing, "the fact that they would have to settle is a victory for us." Fourteen years after the Nigerian activists were hanged, Saro-Wiwa said he thinks Shell has started to acknowledge that it needs a "social license" to operate in a foreign countries. For example, the company has agreed to pay for a study of environmental damage that drilling has caused the Ogoni region. "They have a long way to go," he said. "But at least they realise some of their actions can come back to haunt them as we saw in New York."

"Is it enough to bring back the lives of our clients? Obviously not," said Jenny Green, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York who helped file the lawsuit in 1996. But Green said it will send a message to Shell and other multinationals that operate in developing countries. "You can't commit human rights violations as a part of doing business," she said. "A corporation can't act with impunity. And we think there is accountability in this settlement."

The lawsuits sought unspecified damages from Shell for backing the jailing, torturing and killing of the protesters as well as for polluting the region's air and water. They were brought under a 1789 US statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, allowing noncitizens to file cases in US courts for human rights abuses occurring overseas.

A multinational company has never been found liable of human rights abuses by a US jury, but a few have settled out of court. The Shell case would have been the third to go to trial and the second involving a major oil company.

Villagers in Indonesia are suing Exxon Mobil, claiming it employed guards who kidnapped, tortured and murdered civilians. Chevron is awaiting a verdict from a judge in Ecuador that could lead to a potential 27 billion dollar judgement stemming from a dispute over the role of Texaco, which Chevron bought in 2001, in environmental damages in the Amazon rain forest."

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