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Kiobel vs Shell: 4 Nigerian women take on the corporate machine

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant is to be brought back to court over its alleged complicity in human rights abuses committed in Nigeria during the 1990s, reports SABRINA TUCCI

TOMORROW, a Dutch court will hear witnesses in a landmark case brought by Esther Kiobel and three other women with regard to what they claim was Shell’s involvement in the unlawful arrest, torture and execution of their husbands by the Nigerian military.

This follows a hearing in October 2019, where four people have accused Shell of bribing witnesses to testify against the men during their trial in the 1990s.

Esther’s late husband, Dr Barinem Kiobel, was hanged in 1995 by the Nigerian government along with the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and other seven men, collectively known as the Ogoni Nine.

The trial, which was internationally described as unfair and politically motivated, including by then prime minister John Major, led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth.  

Because of her husband’s trial and execution, Kiobel lost her job and was assaulted and detained by members of the Nigerian army.

Fearing for her life she fled to Benin with her children, where they lived in a refugee camp until she was granted asylum by the US. 

“Shell came into my life to take the best crown l ever wore off my head and to make me a poverty-stricken widow,” says Kiobel.

“My children and l went through such an awful experience that has left us traumatised. We all have lived with so much pain and agony.”

According to Amnesty International, which is supporting the plaintiffs, the executions marked the culmination of the Nigerian military’s ruthless campaign to silence protests of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) against environmental devastation caused by Shell’s operations in the oil rich Ogoniland, Niger Delta. 

Research conducted by the rights organisation has revealed that Shell repeatedly encouraged and helped the Nigerian authorities, both financially and logistically, to stop the Mosop protests so that it could freely operate in the area, even when it knew that this would lead to the unlawful killings, rape, torture and the burning of villages of those involved in the protests.

Shell was also embroiled in the bribery of witnesses to sign false statements incriminating the Ogoni Nine. 

“Shell is one of the UK’s largest companies,” writes Mark Dummett, head of business, security and human rights at Amnesty International.

“We are also talking about one of the world’s richest corporations and some very serious allegations that it was involved in human rights abuses.

“It’s a scandal that it has taken so many years for a court to examine these allegations.”

Kiobel first filed a case against Shell in the US in 2002 but saw her case dismissed in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to examine her allegations.

In 2017 she filed a new case in the Netherlands, together with Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula.

The widows are demanding damages for harm caused by Shell’s actions and a public apology. 

“No-one should be afraid of what they believe in, no-one should ever be made to pay the penalty or price for a crime they never committed. We should always stand strong and seek justice against our oppressor,” writes Kiobel.

Shell has claimed that the events are too old and that the Netherlands does not have jurisdiction to rule over the case. However, in May 2019, a Dutch court ruled out these claims. 

Shell has also denied any involvement and claimed that its headquarters had no control over what was happening in Nigeria at that time.

But internal company documents reviewed by Amnesty International show that key strategic decisions were taken in London and The Hague.

Shell first discovered oil in the Niger Delta in 1956. Since then, the human rights of people living there have been affected by hundreds of oil spills a year from poorly maintained pipelines and wells, as well as by inadequate clean-up practices. In the meantime, the company has earned billions of dollars.

International human rights laws and standards require that companies respect human rights wherever they operate and that governments protect human rights in the context of corporate activities, within and beyond their borders. None of that seems to have happened here.

The British and the Dutch governments failed to even launch an investigation into Shell’s involvement in the events.

“This is difficult and expensive, but must happen more often if these corporations are to be held to account,” says Dummett.

This case has exposed the impact of Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta, but also demonstrates how difficult it can be to bring a powerful corporation to account.

If successful, it would set a historic precedent for other cases around the world and mark a victory for victims of corporate greed and advocates of accountability. 

This is why, despite these challenges, Kiobel is determined to have her husband’s name cleared: “This case will give a sense of belonging and hope to the countless victims of human rights abuses over the world.”

Many are watching. This could be the hearing of reckoning.

Sabrina Tucci is a human rights activist currently researching the labour and sexual exploitation of refugees and asylum-seekers in the agricultural fields in Italy at University College London. Previously, she was a campaigner on business and human rights at the international secretariat of Amnesty International. She blogs at globalmovements.wordpress.com

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