Corporate Accountability Comes Before the U.S. Supreme Court

By Erica Razook, Amnesty’s Business and Human Rights Group

Members of the Ogoni community outside of the Supreme Court, February 28, 2012. Esther Kiobel, center.

Esther Kiobel is a person.

The bright sunlight that washed the steps of the US Supreme Court on Tuesday did not compete with her radiance, the resolve of a widow, a survivor. Outside the court, her eyes searched unquestionably and steadfastly for justice.

In January 1995, when she visited her husband Barinem in a Nigerian prison to bring him some food, she was stripped, beaten and thrown into a cell herself. In November that year, Barinem was executed alongside eight other activists from the Ogoni region of Nigeria, provoking widespread international condemnation of the country’s military rulers.

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Ken Saro-Wiwa: The Legacy of an Environmental Defender

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9. That sounds like the name of a rock star or pop music group, no? Well, to me, human rights activists and environmental defenders are rock stars. And I have no doubt that Ken Saro-Wiwa would still be touring and drawing huge crowds if he were alive today.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was more of a prolific indie rocker. He was a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, primarily for his work as president of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). MOSOP grew out of the concerns of indigenous peoples in the Niger Delta – concerns that are globally echoed by many indigenous communities today – about land rights, environmental degradation, and physical abuse by security forces. If you’re not already familiar with the region, it’s important to understand that the Niger Delta is a major source of oil production.

Under the rule of General Sani Abacha, the Nigerian military tried and executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders in 1995. The deaths of the Ogoni 9 are widely acknowledged to be the result of MOSOP’s peaceful protests against Royal/Dutch Shell. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) isn’t the only oil giant implicit in human rights violations in Nigeria. Concerns over human rights violations by Chevron (CVX) and subcontractors of both multinational oil companies were highlighted in Amnesty International’s 2005 Report Nigeria: Ten years on: injustice and violence haunt the oil Delta.

You won’t hear a cover band performing Ken Saro-Wiwa’s biggest hits, but his message is still on the top of the charts. Fourteen years later, Shell now finds itself at the center of a landmark lawsuit by the families of the Ogoni 9 led by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Wiwa v. Shell cites the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) – one of the only pieces of legislation that exists to hold corporations accountable for their human rights abuses. More specifically, it allows non-US citizens the opportunity to file suits in U.S. courts. But wait, that’s not the amazing part. Did I mention that the ATCA was adopted in 1789? A law that’s been on the books for 200+ years has the potential to form legal precedent for future corporate accountability work.

You can be sure the significance of this case is not lost on big corporate human rights offenders like Chevron (CVX) and ExxonMobil (XOM). That is the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s voice. We keep it on shuffle or archive it in our iTunes library, but rest assured, human rights activists never forget.

- By Anna Phelan, member of Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group