Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to a $15.5 million payout to settle a lawsuit alleging complicity in murder, torture and other abuses by Nigeria's former military government. "Today, plaintiffs and defendants reached a settlement in the human rights cases brought against Royal Dutch Petroleum Company," lawyers for the plaintiffs said on June 8.
"We want to express our satisfaction that these cases have provided the plaintiffs with substantial compensation for their claims," they said, in a development welcomed Tuesday by Ogoni activists.
The settlement brought to an end a more than decade-long battle by relatives of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others executed in 1995 in what plaintiffs said was a campaign of repression backed by Shell.
Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent protest against environmental destruction and abuses against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. He was hanged along with other activists after trial in a military court.
Human rights lawyers hailed the agreement in New York as a precedent for holding Shell and other oil giants responsible for activities in countries with repressive governments.
Shell denies all accusations, but the settlement will spare the oil giant from the potential embarrassment of having to defend itself in court. "Shell has always maintained the allegations were false," Malcolm Brinded, executive director for exploration and production, said. "This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered."
Part of the money will go to the plaintiffs, part to a trust to benefit the Ogoni, and some to pay the costs of litigation.
Bariara Kpalap, spokesman for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, welcomed the out-of-court settlement, but added that Shell still had to address "environmental pollution, neglect and degradation in Ogoniland".
"Shell has inflicted much sufferings on the Ogoni people through its operations. As farmers and fishermen we have been deprived of our means of livelihood through the pollution of our lands," Kpalap said. "For a lasting peace in the Ogoniland, Shell has to change its attitude towards the people. Shell should treat us as civilised human beings and not those to be exploited because of our oil."
Shell highlighted what it called a "humanitarian gesture" to help the Ogoni. "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," Brinded said. "We believe this settlement will assist the process of reconciliation and peace in Ogoni land, which is our primary concern."
The Nigerian plaintiffs, represented by U.S. human rights lawyers, brought the suit under the little used Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 U.S. law occasionally dusted off for use against multinational corporations' activities in other countries.
The case -- seen as a landmark in the human rights legal field -- had been due to go to trial May 27 but was repeatedly delayed in the run-up to the announcement of a settlement. Marco Simons, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, described the agreement as a "very significant milestone."
While the sum of $15.5 million was dwarfed by Shell's budget, it was high enough to make companies dealing with violent governments take notice.
"Shell (will now) think that every time that somebody is injured by soldiers on one of their projects where they are providing support and assistance and encouragement, that each one of those incidents is a million dollar incident," Simons said. "For Shell globally that may not be significant, but if you are talking about the operating cost for that project that is a substantial sum."
Han Shan, at Oil Change International, said: "This case should be a wake up call to multinational corporations that they will be held accountable for violations of international law, no matter where they occur."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009