A nearly 14-year legal battle between Shell Oil and the families of executed protesters from the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta ended Monday with an out-of-court settlement of $15.5 million, just as the case was scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court.
The lawsuits revolved around the 1995 hanging of nine environmental activists, including the Ogoni leader of the campaign, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian author and television producer who was honored that year with the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Through the early 1990s, Saro-Wiwa and The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People used massive mobilizations, some as large as 300,000 people, to disrupt drilling operations in the Niger Delta.
They accused oil companies and the Nigerian government of degrading Ogoni tribal lands and waterways, leaving oil spilled uncleaned, and exploiting the indigenous people and their resources. At one point, the group demanded $10 billion in oil royalties and compensation for the environmental damage.
Then, in 1994, Saro-Wiwa and nine other leaders of the movement were arrested. Accused of inciting murder in the deaths of four Ogoni, they were dragged before a military tribunal and hanged.
The plaintiffs in the cases that were settled on Monday accused the Royal Dutch Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC or Shell Nigeria), and the former head of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, of complicity in the torture, killing and abuse of the nine activists and of making payments to security forces that they knew to be engaging in human rights violations against the local communities.
After the hangings, The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), EarthRights International (ERI), Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman and other human rights attorneys brought a series of cases against Shell to hold the company accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria. The alleged violations included summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention under the Alien Torte Statute.
Shell tried numerous times, unsuccessfully, to have these cases thrown out, most recently suffering a set back on June 3 when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a District Court decision dismissing the plaintiffs' claims.
"This was one of the first cases to charge a multinational corporation with human rights violations, and this settlement confirms that multinational corporations can no longer act with the impunity they once enjoyed," said Jennie Green, the CCR staff attorney who initiated the lawsuit in 1996.
In addition to funds to the families of those executed, the settlement includes a $5 million trust to benefit the Ogoni people.
The settlement only resolves the individual claims, however, and not those of the Ogoni people and other critics who charge that Shell's activities in the region have harmed local communities and the environment, particularly Shell's on-going practice of gas flaring.
These disputes remain unresolved, and in a statement from the plaintiffs, the message to Shell on this issue was clear:
"To Shell, we say that this is one more payment of the overall debt it owes to Nigeria".
According to the terms of the settlement, Shell will neither admit nor deny any wrongdoing.
"Shell has always maintained the allegations were false," Malcolm Brinded, Shell's executive director for exploration and production, said in a statement. He the settlement "acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered."
The coalition behind the ShellGuilty Campaign says Shell was trying to suppress the evidence of its crimes by avoiding a jury trial. The coalition has promised to continue to go after Shell for what it describes as a litany of human rights and environmental violations including oil spills, gas flares and complicity with a repressive military.
Another lawsuit with an Ogoni plaintiff is still pending in the New York District Court. In addition, Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Friends of the Earth Nigeria are supporting legal action over repeated oil spills in the Niger Delta. That action is currently pending in The Hague, Netherlands, where Royal Dutch Shell is headquartered.
"Shell will be dragged from the boardroom to the courthouse, time and again, until the company addresses the injustices at the root of the Niger Delta crisis and put an end to its environmental devastation," said Elizabeth Bast, International Program Director for Friends of the Earth U.S.
"Communities, human rights lawyers and activists will continue to demand justice with the same determination and hope shown by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people."
In April of this year, the Nigerian government and Shell agreed to $10 million to conduct a technical study on the clean-up of the Ogoni lands allegedly polluted from oil drilling and spills. The practice of gas flaring, however, continues today, despite concerns over the health and pollution risks it poses.