Human rights experts believe that Shell bought its way out of the trial because was concerned about the evidence stacked against the company in relation to the brutal murder of nine leaders of the Ogoni tribe in southern Nigeria in 1992.
Amongst the murdered was Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian author, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. He also was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic Nigerian minority whose hometown, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme and unremediated environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate oil waste dumping.
Initially as spokesperson, and then as President, of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against environmental degradation of the land and natural waters of Ogoniland by the operations of multinational oil companies, especially Shell. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce proper environmental regulations on the foreign oil companies operating in the area.
At the peak of his non-violent campaign, Saro-Wiwa was arrested, hastily tried by a special military tribunal, and hanged in 1995 by the Nigerian military government of General Sani Abacha, all on charges widely viewed as entirely politically motivated and completely unfounded. His execution provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.
Beginning in 1996, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), EarthRights International (ERI), and a number of human rights attorneys brought a series of cases to hold Shell accountable for human rights violations in Nigeria, including summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, inhuman treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention. The lawsuits were brought against Royal Dutch Shell and Brian Anderson, the head of its Nigerian operation.
The legal basis for the cases was the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 statute giving non-U.S. citizens the right to file suits in U.S. courts for international human rights violations, and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows individuals to seek damages in the U.S. for torture or extrajudicial killing, regardless of where the violations take place.
Shell made many attempts to have these cases thrown out of court, which the plaintiffs all defeated. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York set a trial date of June, 2009. On 9 June 2009, Shell agreed to an out of court settlement of US$15.5 million to victims’ families, although Shell denied any liability for the deaths, stating that the payment was “part of a reconciliation process”.
While the bulk of the settlement will be distributed to the families of the murdered activists, some of it (US$5 million) will be used to set up a trust called Kiisi – meaning “progress” in the Ogoni Gokana language – to support educational and other initiatives in the Niger delta.