My time spent doing legal work in the international human rights community has, without a doubt, been filled with challenges. I am keenly aware of the domestic and international obstacles to ensuring justice and accountability through legal policies.
I have seen first-hand the power and influence of multi-national corporations on these efforts and their related political limitations.
On June 8, a settlement was reached in human rights cases against Royal Dutch/Shell operations in Nigeria. The settlement requires Shell to pay $15.5 million to the families of non-violent Nigerian activists who were executed in 1995, including Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, and represents a huge accomplishment for human rights activists in the Niger Delta and throughout the world. Saro-Wiwa came to embody the greater fight for democracy in Nigeria through his actions as a writer and environmental activist.
African Americans have been involved with struggles for justice in Nigeria for a long time. In the mid-nineties, TransAfrica Forum, along with environmental, human rights, labor and congressional leaders, led the push to demand justice for the death of Saro-Wiwa.
Saro-Wiwa's conviction was only the tip of the iceberg of anti-democratic actions by Nigeria's military dictatorship. At the same time, information about collaboration between the military and multi-national corporations including Shell was slowly becoming more public.
Lawyers for the activists' families, as well as family members of Ken Saro-Wiwa, have been hesitant to say if such a ruling will usher in any larger change with regards to Shell operations. The case charged Shell parent companies, Shell operations in Nigeria, and Brian Anderson, the head of the Nigerian Shell company with complicity in extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity, torture and other human rights claims. Shell continues to maintain their innocence and claims their willingness to go to court was based upon their need to clear their name.
The Center for Constitutional Rights praises the victory as an illustration that multinational corporations can no longer act with impunity. Such a finding is particularly exciting for solidarity organizations that have long sought effective and practical ways to enforce international human rights.
The case demonstrates a first win through the use of the Alien Tort Claim Act and should be upheld as a victory of truly fair and accountable international human rights law. The Act, originally passed in 1789, allows foreigners to file cases against individuals, and multi-national corporations, for crimes committed outside the U.S.
In light of this historic victory, where do we go from here? The Shell case re-affirms the need to be continuously vigilant in making corporations accountable for environmental and human rights abuses.
As if by divine providence, the June 8 settlement took place just days after the United Nation's World Environment Day on June 5. World Environment Day 2009 and the Shell-Ogoni Settlement remind us of the strong connection between human rights and environment rights—whether it's in the Niger Delta or the Mississippi Delta.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was very much aware of the human rights and environment rights connection to poor communities. Saro-Wiwa described it best during his unjust "trial" in 1995:
"I have no doubt of the ultimate success of my cause…I repeat that we all stand before history. I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial.
"Shell is here on trial…The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come and lessons learnt here may prove useful to it, for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question sooner than later and the crimes of that war be duly punished.
"The crime of the Company's dirty war against the Ogoni people will also be punished."
Well, that day has come. And it is my hope that the ruling against Shell signals the beginning of greater corporate and governmental respect for human, land, labor and economic rights.
Nicole C. Lee is the executive director of TransAfrica Forum.