On Monday, 8 June Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil producer, reached a $15.5 million dollar settlement in a lawsuit brought against it by the families of the nine Nigerian activists who were killed in 1995. The lawsuit, which was brought to a New York court under the US Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), accused Shell's Nigerian subsidiary of complicity in the hanging and the killings or persecution of the environmental activists.
The ATCA allows non-US citizens to sue companies registered in the US for alleged international human rights violations. Shell, which fought the lawsuit for more than thirteen years, was told recently by a federal court of appeals that the plaintiffs could sue the company's Nigerian subsidiary in American courts, overturning a March decision in the company's favor.
Shell said the payment is a humanitarian gesture to the people of the Ogoni region. The company did not admit any wrongdoing in the deaths of the nine activists, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa, a well-known Nigerian activist and writer who founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People to protest against Shell’s oil exploration in the Niger Delta. Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow activists were executed in 1995 after being found guilty by a three-man military tribunal on what their families and supporters claim were trumped-up charges of causing the death of four Ogoni elders.
The settlement funds will be used to compensate the plaintiffs, establish a trust to benefit Nigeria’s Ogoni people, and cover some legal fees, according to court papers.
The plaintiffs claimed the case set a precedent for oil companies operating in regions such as West Africa by demonstrating that they could "be brought to trial in America for human rights violations in Africa." In earlier similar trials, however, multinational companies have never been found liable of human rights violations by a US jury. In one case of alleged human rights violations in Myanmar a multinational (Unocal Corp.) also settled out of court.
The case is Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, 96-cv-08386, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).