Big Oil Finally Pays in Nigeria: A Victory for Corporate Accountability

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

poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa during a rally on the Port Harcourt highway 10 November 2005

An Ogoni man carries a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa at a rally in Nigeria, November 2005 ©AFP/Getty Images

My mom called me to tell me that a settlement was reached in the Wiwa v. Shell case.  She saw a report on the nightly television news earlier this week. That’s how I knew this story was really big news.  In Tuesday’s Guardian (UK), Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. talks about the families’ decision to accept the settlement with Shell.  He says, the choice “enabled [the plaintiffs] to advertise the settlement as a living, breathing example of how and why the commitment to peace, non-violence and dialogue is the best way to resolve the challenges in the Niger Delta.” What better advertisement than international news coverage?

When I explain the work Amnesty International members undertake, I point out that there are different levels of success. Our letter writing can result in the release of a prisoner of conscience.  Meetings with diplomats and elected officials can lead to the passage of critical legislation in support of human rights. Many of us wrote countless letters to Nigerian government officials when Ken Saro-Wiwa was adopted as a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s.  After his execution, we continued to work closely with the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S., vowing to “Never Forget” Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9. We held ceremonies – outside the United Nations, in front of the Nigerian Consulate in D.C., and in our communities – to rename streets Ken Saro-Wiwa Place or Ogoni 9 Square in their honor.

Sometimes we don’t immediately see the success we hoped for.  And while Amnesty International has not participated in the lawsuits brought against Shell, our continued work on corporate accountability issues will benefit from Wiwa v. Shell’s successes. Michael D. Goldhaber’s A Win for Wiwa, A Win for Shell, A Win for Corporate Human Rights at The AmLaw Daily offers a comprehensive summary of the benchmarks achieved through the settlement.  Stay tuned for the next big news story, we’re well on our way towards more success.

Learn more about how Amnesty works to promote corporate accountability for human rights.

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