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Shell: corporate impunity goes on trial

George Monbiot blog

Multinationals accused of human rights abuses can no longer feel safe now that the oil giant is facing allegations of complicity in the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa home


Shell to appear before a US court. Photograph: James Boardman/Public Domain

Could this be the beginning of the end of the age of impunity? Fourteen years after the judicial murder of the Nigerian novelist, environmentalist and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell is about to go on trial in New York, accused of complicity in his execution. This represents a remarkable moment in the struggle between people and multinational corporations. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the fact that one of the planet’s most powerful companies finds itself in the dock changes everything. From now on, no transnational corporation involved in possible human rights abuses will feel completely safe.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, with eight other Ogoni rights activists, was executed by Nigeria’s military dictatorship in 1995. The men were a constant irritant to the generals, reminding the world that their lands in the Niger Delta were being wrecked and their health and livelihoods destroyed by gas flaring, oil spills and military attacks. Imprisonment and beatings failed to shut them up. So the government constructed false charges against these men, paid people to pose as witnesses and hanged them.

The plaintiffs claim that Shell, which still has major operations in the Niger Delta, paid Nigerian troops to terrorise the Ogoni and bribed two of the witnesses at the trial of the activists. Shell denies these charges and claims it intervened to try to stop the executions, but there is no doubt that it worked alongside one of Africa’s most brutal regimes. It also continues to pollute the Ogoni’s land today by burning off the gas from its oil wells and this was one of the subjects over which I clashed with Shell’s chief executive Jeroen van der Veer during our fierce exchange a little while ago.

Aside from the damage to the health of the Ogoni and their environment, gas flaring in Nigeria produces more carbon dioxide than all other activities in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. One day, perhaps, that might be the subject of a lawsuit too.

What this trial shows is that people like the Ogoni, though they may be poor and though they may possess little power, can no longer be treated as disposable. For two centuries corporations and governments from the rich world have treated the people they encounter overseas as nothing but obstacles to the extraction of resources, who – when they could not be enslaved to assist that work – had to be disposed of as expeditiously as possible: by bribery, deception, terror or massacre. The richer the resources a land possesses, the more viciously its inhabitants are treated. Now these inconvenient people might begin to be seen as human beings.


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