Kate Mackenzie How the Saro-Wiwa case was settled

The 13-year case against Shell over the execution of nine Nigerian activists in 1995 has been settled out of court, with the oil company paying $15.5m to the plaintiffs.

It ends the case launched by relatives of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others, who were hanged in 1995 after campaigning against Shell’s activities in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta, and against the then military-led government.

Shell has denied being complicit in Mr Saro-Wiwa’s death and a reign of terror by security forces in the Ogoni region, and says it appealed for clemency before the 1995 executions.

$5m of the money will go towards a trust, which will be overseen by trustees independent of both the plaintiffs and Shell, to fund education, health, and community development programmes such as literacy, small enterprise support and support for women. The remainder of the money will go towards legal costs, and to the plaintiffs.

Shell’s Malcolm Brinded said, the company’s statement:

“Shell has always maintained the allegations were false.  While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people, which is important for peace and stability in the region.

“This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered.”

The plaintiffs, in their statement, said they were pleased to announce the settlement, and had these messages:

  • To our people, we say Ake, Beenu, Nonu, Sitam. The struggle continues.
  • To the rest of our supporters and campaigners, we thank you for keeping us company and for your support for all these years, and the years to come.
  • To Shell, we say that this is one more payment of the overall debt it owes to Nigeria. We acknowledge that there have been some changes in the company’s attitudes. The world has changed and Shell cannot afford to continue to do business as usual in Nigeria. Yet we hope that the lessons Shell has learned from its continuing encounters with the Ogoni will serve the company well. We note that Shell still faces further claims by Ogonis both individually and collectively.
  • And to that end we wish to send a message to our dear brothers and sisters in the Niger Delta and in Nigeria that dialogue remains the most humane and creative option in the search for peace and a mutually beneficial coexistence.

The fact that the case was launched in the US reflects something of a legal curiosity. The claim was made under the US Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 – which has made a comeback after being forgotten for almost two centuries:

The statute’s original purpose remains a subject of speculation but its effect was to give foreigners a means to pursue civil court actions in the US over alleged violations of international law. It is widely thought the act was meant to target high seas piracy and to address concerns about cases in which overseas powers felt they had been denied justice, such as a much-publicised assault on a French diplomat on US soil in 1784.

About 64 alien tort cases are thought to have been brought in the past 30 years, with most of those in the past 15 years. Although none have been won after a full trial, there have been several high profile settlements including one between Unocol and Burmese villagers who alleged they were forced to work on a pipeline project for the company, and another settlement by Yahoo over claims related to the jailing of two Chinese dissidents. The revival of interest in the act has provoked some controversy, but supporters argue it is filling a vacuum as few other options exist for those who believe they have been wronged by big businesses; particularly in poor nations where legal systems may lack perspicacity.

Related links:

Shell in $15.5m settlement over executions (FT, 08/06/09)
Old law exhumed by human rights fighters (FT, 25/05/09)