September 19, 2007

Shell Oil disregards human rights in Nigeria


By David A. Love
Published by Progressive Media Project and Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service
June 25, 1998

The recent death of Nigeria's brutal and corrupt military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, has brought new hopes for democracy in that country. But the Abacha regime did not rule alone. It worked hand in glove with oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. It's time for Shell to come clean about its misdeeds in Nigeria and assist in the democratic process.

International human-rights groups have accused Shell of actively supporting Nigeria's military government, and participating in the regime's human-rights excesses.

Activist-playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were hung for campaigning against Shell Oil's practices in the Ogoni region. Saro-Wiwa pushed for a greater share of oil revenues to the Ogoni people and a cleanup of Shell's hundreds of oil spills across the region. Human-rights organizations criticized Shell for failing to intervene on behalf of the activists, who were convicted on trumped up murder charges and executed in November 1995.

Shell produces more than half of Nigeria's oil. Formerly known as the breadbasket of Nigeria, this once fertile land in the Niger River delta is reportedly devastated by pollution. According to the British newspaper the Independent, the area emits 12 million tons of methane and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, making it the world's greatest contributor to global warming.

The ecological damage in Ogoni -- caused by years of oil-drilling and flaring gas -- has resulted in health problems. Dr. Owens Wiwa, brother of Ken Saro-Wiwa, says there is a high incidence of asthma, cancer and bronchitis among people who live in the area. Wiwa also makes note of "some bizarre skin diseases and a high level of miscarriages, which is quite different from other areas in Nigeria that are not producing oil.''

Shell denies the charge.

"We have not caused environmental devastation in the Ogoniland,'' Shell International spokesman Eric Nickson recently told the Baltimore Sun. "In fact, we are trying to work with the community and improve life there.'' Nickson blamed the oil spills on sabotage by Ogoni activists.

Shell also must answer to charges that it participated in Abacha's human-rights abuses. According to internal government communications and other confidential sources, Shell asked for armed assistance against local protestors. A Nigerian military official wrote a memorandum stating: "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.'' Shell admits it asked for help and bought handguns for the police guarding its facilities but denies paying the military.

A lawsuit filed in the Southern District Court of New York on behalf of the Wiwa family and the other activists alleges that the executions by Nigeria's military junta were conducted with "the knowledge, consent, and/or support'' of Shell Oil. The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which calls for federal jurisdiction for civil wrongs committed by foreigners who break international law or a U.S. treaty. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights is the lead counsel in the case.

Shell has responded by asserting that it does not have legal responsibility over its Nigerian operations. The corporation claims it is a mere holding company, a conglomerate of independent subsidiaries and diversified investments. Opponents accuse the company of playing a "shell game,'' claiming that Shell is a tightly knit "super-corporation.''

Before being sentenced to death, Ken Saro-Wiwa addressed the military tribunal: "I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial. ... The company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come. ... The crime of the company's dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.'' Shell must clean up its act. If Shell does not take responsibility for its actions in Nigeria, it will be hard for consumers to pump their gas with a clear conscience.

Copyright © 1998 by David A. Love

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