, LAGOS, Jun 10 – Victims of murder, torture and other abuses by Nigeria’s former military government hailed on Tuesday a landmark out-of-court settlement with Royal Dutch Shell over its alleged complicity in the crimes.
Shell agreed Monday in New York to pay out 15.5 million dollars (10.7 million euros) to relatives of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others executed in 1995 in what plaintiffs said was a campaign of repression backed by the oil giant.
The settlement brings to an end a long battle by the Nigerian victims and means that Shell avoids a potentially embarrassing court case while having to accept no actual wrongdoing.
Saro-Wiwa had led a non-violent campaign to protest environmental destruction and abuses against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta before he was hanged along with other activists after his trial in a military court.
"We welcome the 15.5 million dollars compensation for the illegal killings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other eight Ogoni leaders," Bariara Kpalap, spokesman for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), told AFP.
But Kpalap insisted Shell must still address the issue of environmental pollution and change the way it does business in the oil-rich Niger Delta, where farmers and fishermen are being driven off.
"For a lasting peace in the Ogoni land, Shell has to change its attitude towards the people. Shell should treat us as civilised human beings and not those to be exploited because of our oil," he said.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said roughly a third of the settlement would go into a fund for the Ogoni people.
"Five million… is going into the trust and the remainder is used for the plaintiffs and the estates of the descendants and the costs of litigation and legal fees," Marco Simons said in New York.
Shell maintained its innocence and highlighted what it called a "humanitarian gesture" to help the Ogoni.
"While we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people," said Malcolm Brinded, executive director for exploration and production.
"We believe this settlement will assist the process of reconciliation and peace in Ogoni land, which is our primary concern."
The Nigerian plaintiffs, represented by US human rights lawyers, brought the suit under the little used Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 US law occasionally dusted off for use against multinational corporations.
The case, seen as a landmark in the human rights legal field, had been due to go to trial on May 27 but was repeatedly delayed in the run-up to Monday’s announcement of a settlement.
Simons described the agreement as a "very significant milestone."
While a settlement of 15.5 million dollars will hardly dent the coffers of an oil giant like Shell, he said it was a large enough sum to ensure other international companies dealing with violent governments took note.
"Shell (will now) think that every time that somebody is injured by soldiers on one of their projects where they are providing support and assistance and encouragement, that each one of those incidents is a million dollar incident."
The settlement is not the end of Shell’s legal troubles. Separate challenges are being mounted in New York by an Ogoni and by environmental activists in the Netherlands.
Human rights lawyers in New York hailed the agreement as a precedent for holding Shell and other oil giants responsible for activities in countries with repressive governments.
"Shell will be dragged from the boardroom to the courthouse, time and again, until the company addresses the injustices at the root of the Niger Delta crisis and put an end to its environmental devastation," said Elizabeth Bast, international programme director for Friends of the Earth US.
Han Shan, at Oil Change International, said: "This case should be a wake-up call to multinational corporations that they will be held accountable for violations of international law, no matter where they occur."