Shell settles Saro-Wiwa case

by | Jun 10, 2009

Royal Dutch Shell - Flickr User Lee Otis

Royal Dutch Shell - Flickr User Lee Otis

After 13 years, Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay $15.5 million compensation to settle a court case over its alleged part in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders in the Niger Delta. Much of the backstory can be found here.

Now I’m no judge (not yet, anyway), but $15 million doesn’t seem a lot for a firm with 2008 revenues of $458 billion. Michael Goldhaber, who does know something about law, describes the sum as ‘nuisance value’ from Shell’s point of view.

Yet the fact that Shell settled the day before the trial was due to begin is indicative of the firm’s distaste for either the publicity that court proceedings would create, or the culpability that might be uncovered. According to The Guardian:

Supporters of the legal action said the fact that Shell had walked away from the trial suggested the company had been anxious about the evidence that would have been presented had it gone ahead. Stephen Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, said Shell “knew the case was overwhelming against them, so they bought their way out of a trial”.

Among the documents lodged with the New York court was a 1994 letter from Shell in which it agreed to pay a unit of the Nigerian army for services rendered. The unit had retrieved one of the company’s fire trucks from the village of Korokoro – an action that according to reports at the time left one Ogoni man dead and two wounded. Shell wrote it was making the payment “as a show of gratitude and motivation for a sustained favourable disposition in future assignments”.

Although, if the case against Shell was so clear-cut, one has to wonder why the Ogoni and their legal representatives chose to accept an out-of-court settlement at all. Regardless of the ins and outs of the case, the mere fact of having brought Shell to trial is a testament to the power of transnational solidarities. And we may celebrate the fact that the Ogoni have finally attained some measure of justice.

Over the past few years, the plight of the Ogoni people and their fight against Shell’s operations in Ogoniland has become the anti-corporate quest for justice par excellence. The cases were brought under the US’s Alien Tort Statute, which is becoming increasingly popular with campaigners seeking hearings against corporate abuses in the developing world. The outcome of this case indicates that multinationals are going to be decreasingly able to get away with underhanded tactics in the further-flung reaches of their operations. In short, this is a significant victory for transnational corporate accountability. Yet one is left with the nagging feeling that a trial would have better served the wider public interest. Consider this, from John Vidal:

The settlement stops the world knowing exactly what was the company’s relationship with the national government and the military, and the extent of Shell’s involvement in the human rights abuses that led to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution. The Ogoni had assembled a formidable case and were being represented by some of the most best [sic] human rights lawyers in the world. It could have been intensely embarrassing for the company if it all had come out.

Shell said it had agreed to settle out of humanitarian interests, but everyone on the delta knows that real justice has not been done, and that the environmental abuses continue. The company continues to needlessly burn off vast amounts of gas. The air is still poisoned, children are still sick, there are few jobs, the creeks are polluted and the poverty is intense.

Indeed, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son told Democracy Now! that:

there’s a bigger picture here. Clearly, there are issues in the Niger Delta, there’s challenges in the Niger Delta, and we need people with solutions. We need-we all know what the problems are. The oil companies know what the problems are. The government knows what the problems are. The community knows what the problems are. But what we need now are the real solutions, and we need them now.

Of course, while this particular case is over, Shell must now face a proliferation of miscellaneous legal claims from other Ogoni, both individually and collectively. Perhaps other cases like that of the Ogoni will see resolution. Next up: Bhopal and Union Carbide? As the Wiwa vs. Shell plaintiffs’ final statement says: ‘the struggle continues.’


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