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Nigerians Get Their Day in Court On Human Rights Claims Against Oil Companies

If IkpoBari Senewo had not been conducting an exam for his secondary school students in the Niger Delta village of Bane one afternoon in May of 1994, he believes he would have been killed. As it was, members of the Nigerian military who came to Senewo's house that day found only his father at home, so they flogged the elderly man with a section of high-tension cable and then burned the house down.

Plenty of Senewo's colleagues in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) faced even worse consequences for their activism. The most notable victim was Senewo's close friend and movement leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian military in 1995.

MOSOP leaders were outspoken critics of Royal Dutch/Shell's environmental practices in their oil-rich Ogoni homeland, and Senewo and other activists blame the multinational corporation for their brutal treatment. "Shell did not want anything to interfere with its business in Nigeria, so it made sure the Nigerian police and military did its bidding," Senewo said from Chicago, where he has lived for ten years after fleeing Nigeria. A lawsuit brought against Royal Dutch/Shell by the Wiwa family and other victims of arrest and torture is scheduled to go to trial in U.S. District Court in New York in February.

Shell spokesperson Robin Lebovitz said via email, "The allegations made in the complaints against Royal Dutch/Shell concerning the 1995 executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow Ogonis are false and without merit. Shell in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence against them or their fellow Ogonis."

Shell's prospects in the Wiwa trial may benefit from this month's ruling in the similar case of Bowoto vs. Chevron, where a San Francisco jury rejected a claim that the oil giant was partly responsible for shootings by Nigerian soldiers the company summoned to respond to a protest at Chevron's offshore oil platform.

But some human rights activists like Scott Pegg, an IUPUI political science professor who has conducted research and helped build primary schools in Nigeria, find a silver lining in the Bowoto decision. "The good news is that the verdict cuts against transnational corporations' argument that they cannot get a fair trial in cases like these," Pegg says.

The Bowoto and Wiwa suits were brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 statute which allows non-citizens to file lawsuits in U.S. courts for alleged violations of human rights even if the acts occurred outside the U.S. Multinational corporations have succeeded in getting many such claims dismissed. But in 2005, Unocal settled a high-profile suit alleging the company's complicity in forced labor to build an oil pipeline in Burma. Yahoo recently settled a claim that it aided in the arrest of a Chinese dissident.

Pegg says that U.S. jurisdiction of these claims is necessary for justice to be served. "We are fortunate in the U.S. to have a stable and independent judicial system, but that is not the case in many countries where the worst human rights abuses occur.

"In Nigeria, for example, many people see the government and corporations as one and the same, with the government serving as a military wing of the corporations. The disparity of power between the corporation and the victim of a human rights violation diminishes the chance of a fair trial."

A fair trial in the Wiwa case, according to Senewo, would publicly identify the source of the Ogoni people's suffering. "I long to see justice done against Shell," he says. "I want the world to know that innocent people were sacrificed on the altar of greed."

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