Ogoni Killings: US S'Court Hears Suit against Shell

2012-02-27
THISDAY Newspaper- Chika Amanze-Nwachuku

The United States’ Supreme Court will tomorrow hear arguments on whether or not Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) can be held liable for complicity in human rights abuses outside the country (US).

Specifically, the suit was filed by the widow of one of the nine Ogoni indigenes executed in 1995 for protesting Shell's operations in the area.

The case: Esther Kiobel vs the Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Company was filed under the 1789 US law called the Alien Tort Statute and seeks to hold the oil company liable under the Alien Tort Statute.

The Alien Tort Statute, also called the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA)) is a section of the US code that reads: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

This statute is notable for allowing the country’s courts to hear human rights cases brought by foreign citizens for conduct committed outside the US.

Similar cases filed by relatives of the slain Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, resulted in a 2009 $15.5 million settlement by Shell for the plaintiffs and Ogoni people.

The settlement was reached after 13 years of legal wrangling just before the scheduled start of a jury trial in a New York Federal Court.

The US Times reported yesterday that the 1789 Statute remained almost completely unused until the 1980s, but since then, it has come up more and more.

The Alien Tort Statute, the newspaper added, allows courts to hear cases brought up by foreigners for violations of international laws and US treaties.

“The issue before the court is whether a corporation is basically immune for human rights abuses and we think the most significant principle is that corporations that are doing business in the United States are bound by US law and US law includes the prohibition of human rights violations. Sο when a corporation is complicit in those violations, it can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute,” the newspaper quoted the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jennifer Green, a Professor of Law from the University of Minnesota, to have said.

Shell officials vigorously denied any involvement in the killings or in any human rights abuses, but said they acknowledged the plaintiffs and others had suffered, added the report.

The US apex court had in October last year noted that it would use the dispute filed under the 1789 US law to decide whether companies can be held liable in the US courts for human rights violations abroad.

The Alien Tort had been increasingly used in recent years to sue corporations for alleged abuses abroad. The Supreme Court said it expects a decision on the case by June.

The lawsuit had been dismissed by a US appeals court in New York on grounds that corporations cannot be held liable in the US for violations of international human rights law.

However, the plaintiff’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that review was necessary because appeal courts around the nation had issued conflicting rulings on the issue of corporate liability under the more than 200-year-old law.

 

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