/ 26 May 2009

Nigerian past haunts Shell

Oil giant Shell faces allegations of complicity in horrific abuses by the Nigerian government, including the execution of environmental protestor Ken Saro-Wiwa, in a potentially landmark trial starting on Wednesday.

In a highly unusual move, activists brought the lawsuit to a federal court in New York using an obscure US law that allows international corporations to be held to account for alleged crimes in other countries.

Jury selection starts on Wednesday and could take at least a day before opening comments can begin.

The action, if successful, is likely to set off alarm bells in boardrooms at companies who have been doing business for decades in countries with poor human rights records.

Shell is accused of complicity in the 1995 hanging of Saro-Wiwa, a renowned writer and activist, and other leaders of a movement protesting alleged environmental destruction and other abuses by Shell against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta.

The corporation, which has a powerful presence in Nigeria, is also accused of complicity in the torture, detention and exile of Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Owens Wiwa, and other violent attacks on dissidents in the country.

Shell denies all the charges.

Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior, wrote in the Observer newspaper on Sunday that the trial was a chance for justice more than a decade after the alleged crimes.

He said that his father in a final statement to the military tribunal, which he was ultimately not allowed to make, wrote that Shell, not he and his eight condemned colleagues, were on trial.

”The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come … The crime of the company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished,” Saro-Wiwa Junior recalled his father writing.

The civil suit was brought by victims of Nigeria’s former military government, including Saro-Wiwa Junior.

They sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a little-used law that dates to 1789 and which is being increasingly dusted off as a way to target human rights violations in foreign countries.

The act requires companies with a substantial presence in the United States to obey US law — everywhere in the world.

In April, a US court opened the way for another big lawsuit, saying that corporations including General Motors and IBM can be sued by South African apartheid victims for alleged collusion with the white regime.

Other cases include claims from Iraqis against controversial United States-based contractors like Blackwater (now known as Xe), accused of aiding and abetting abuses during the conflict in Iraq. – AFP