Oil Industry Drilled Over Human Rights

Royal Dutch Shell agreed Monday to pay $15.5 million in an out-of-court settlement, in compensation to families of Nigerian victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by the company in the 1990s. The move came just days before a New York court was scheduled to hear the case and despite company claims of no wrongdoing.

Ten Nigerian plaintiffs, including the son and brother of slain writer/activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, brought suit against the oil giant over the execution of eight anti-Shell environmental activists by Nigeria’s military rulers in 1995. The suit was filed in U.S. courts under a 200-year-old law that allows people to file rights abuse cases even if the alleged crimes took place outside the U.S. The plaintiffs charged the company had supplied weapons to the government, hired government troops to disperse protesters and actively participated in security sweeps.

Though Royal Dutch Shell called Monday’s decision a “humanitarian gesture,” plaintiffs and their supporters declared victory.

“We hope this sends a signal. It’s a relief also that we’ve been able to draw a line over the past. And from a legal perspective, this historic case means that corporations will have to be much more careful,” Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. told the New York Times.

Oil industry giants have long been a prime target for rights advocates over the environmental and human costs associated with the business. The case against Royal Dutch Shell is just one of several currently being pursued against oil industry giants around the world.

Chevron was cleared last December of any wrongdoing during violent protests on one of its Nigerian platforms 10 years ago. But it still faces a multi-billion-dollar suit in Ecuador over claims of environmental damage caused in the Amazon by Texaco (which Chevron acquired in 2001). Exxon Mobil is facing court proceedings over allegations that guards at the company’s Aceh, Indonesia, natural gas facility tortured and murdered civilians.

The list of rights abuse accusations runs the spectrum from active complicity in government crackdowns, to contamination of local farmland and water supplies, to permanent environmental damage and endangering the health of local communities. Activists have also taken aim at the industry over environmental and health damages caused by gas-flaring practices, in which companies’ burn off unwanted natural gas during oil production.

Questions over the oil industry and human rights are part of a larger, global movement to more clearly define multinational and national corporations’ responsibilities versus the state’s duty to protect. The cases — and the means used to settle them — help fuel the dialogue, and may eventually provide some parameters to the issues.