Monday, June 8, 2009

Wiwa v. Shell Settles

In a dramatic victory for environmental justice, Shell Oil just settled the case Wiwa v. Shell Oil on the eve of trial (mentioned in this post).
Brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act by Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr., son of the murdered Nigerian poet and Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (prior post), the lawsuit alleged that Royal Dutch Shell Company, its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, and the former head of Nigerian operations, Brian Anderson were all complicit in murder, torture, crimes against humanity and other crimes.
My CUNY colleague Jennie Green was one of the attorneys representing the Nigerian plaintiffs, along with lawyers from EarthRights International, the Center for Constitutional Rights (where Jennie is also a Senior Staff attorney) and the private law firms Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris and Hoffman, and Cohen, Milstein, Sellers and Toll. (and probably many others of whom I am unaware.) Not only did the attorneys recover more than $15 million for the families of the murder victims, but their victory sends a message that multinational corporations can no longer act with impunity. I have previously written about the need to hold corporate entities criminally liable when they violate of human rights. As Ken Saro-Wiwa said before he was executed, he was indeed a man of ideas and his ideas still live! This is indeed a victory for human rights and for environmental justice everywhere!

6 comments:

Unknown said...

One minor correction - it's actually EarthRights International (www.earthrights.org) who are co-counsel on this case, not Earth Justice.

Diane Marie Amann said...

Thanks, Maggie. Change made.

Rebecca Bratspies said...

oops sorry for mistyping. thanks for the correction

Michael said...

How much of a victory is it, though? $15 million sounds like a lot but it's a mere pittance to Shell, which reported $31 BILLION in profits for 2008 alone.

I understand the plaintiffs' desire to settle the issue and avoid another 10-15 years of litigation -- especially after the disappointing jury decision in the Chevron case (which I'm still surprised at - I thought it was a no-brainer) -- but I'd say that Shell got out of this one very cheaply.

Naomi Norberg said...

Michael,
I think we may always feel the corporations get off cheaply when we look at the dollar figure compared to their earnings. What's interesting to me here is the comparison with Unocal/Total settlements. In the American cases (Total and now Wiwa), a huge chunk of money goes to the victims. In Europe, such sums are unthinkable. In the Total case (sister of Unocal, criminal trial in France resulting from the same events in Burma/Myanmar), the award to the plaintiffs was quite low as compared to the Unocal victim's settlement (5.2 million euros for the named plaintiffs and all others similarly situated), but Total also had to invest in projects in the region to improve the condition of the local communities from which the victims come.

Michael said...

I think the disparity in the size of the settlements is primarily due to a number of differences between the US and continental European (civil law) legal systems, which result in bigger damage awards for tort suits being much more common - and in general more accepted - in the US.

As for the money that Total will spend on community projects in Myanmar -- well, I may be too cynical, but I don't have much confidence that the local communities will benefit much in the end. (See e.g. all the reports about the Burmese government's diversion / capture of aid following last year's cyclone.)

In the end, the dollar figure as a proportion of corporate earnings (or at least, profits) is important, I think, because only large payouts (or the prospect of same) are likely to curtail corporate behavior. For a company like Shell, $15 million is just a minor cost of doing business.

Still - there were some good decisions that came out of this one, and which may be helpful for other cases in the future...