You do not pay over $15 million if you are innocent of wrongdoing
As the news broke that Shell was forced to settle a lawsuit for human rights abuses in Nigeria for $15.5 million, emails have been pouring in asking what this means for the plaintiffs, the Ogoni people and the ongoing struggle for human and environmental rights in the country?
People are asking whether this is a victory for the plaintiffs or a victory for Shell. We would argue it is most definitively in favor of the the former.
Despite Shell's overpowering legal and financial might it has had to pay a significant sum of money to the plaintiffs and the minority Ogoni people of Nigeria. The good news is that, in the court of public opinion, Shell is guilty, even though the company has admitted no liability. You do not pay over $15 million if you are innocent of wrongdoing.
For the son of the murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ken Wiwa Jr, there is no doubt that this is a moment not of celebration but of pragmatic relief that some kind of line can be drawn under his fight for justice for his father. Writing in the Guardian, he said: 'There was no hat-in-the-air moment, no popping of champagne corks ... Anti-climax doesn't quite describe this moment.'
He continued: 'In the end a settlement is a compromise; both parties agree to settle their differences by meeting in a so-called middle. That middle is a matter of perspective of course. To some this must be bewildering. To others it was too long in coming. In the end it is only those who are intimately involved, who have everything to lose and everything to gain that have to make a decision that will not satisfy everyone.'
In weighing up whether to settle or not, the plaintiffs would have been swayed by the offer of much-needed cash to help the underdeveloped Ogoni region of the oil-rich Niger Delta. So $5 million of Shell's money will create the Kiisi Trust. The word 'kiisi' means 'progress' in Ogoni. This Trust will allow for initiatives in Ogoni for educational endowments, skills development programmes, agricultural development, women's programmes, small enterprise support, and adult literacy.
But that is not all. There is no doubt that, even though it may never make it to a jury trial, the case has legal ramifications: Ken Wiwa Jr argues that 'history will show that this was a landmark case. Multinationals now know that a precedent has been set, that it is possible to be sued for human rights violations in foreign jurisdictions.'
Over twelve years, the plaintiffs have scored blow after blow, and in 2000 forced the US courts to recognise that companies involved in human rights abuses abroad could be held accountable under US jurisdiction.
This case will continue to make waves as a myriad of new documents that show the true depth of collusion between Shell and the Nigeria come to light. These documents show that Shell has consistently lied to the public and its shareholders about the extent of its relationship with the Nigerian military. It colluded with the higher echelons of the military junta.
Shell may have tried to conceal the true environmental impact of its operations, but no PR campaign can hide the truth forever. As Steve Kretzmann from Oil Change noted recently, 'Lawyers told us quite clearly that one of the main reasons that Shell settled was because of the media and activist pressure that we brought. Just a few months ago, a lawyer close to Shell told us that they would settle "when hell froze over" and he "skated on it": but that was before our ShellGuilty campaign. Over 11,000 of you sent messages to Shell... That pressure made all the difference.'
But Shell will be wrong if it thinks that getting out its sizeable cheque-book will mean the end of the story. The company is routinely flaring gas in the Niger Delta despite years of promises to put out these toxic fires. There is still routine pollution. All these issues and many more must be addressed before there can be justice for the people of the Niger Delta.
But then the plaintiffs recognise that this is not the end of the story.
As their statement says: 'To our people, we say Ake, Beenu, Nonu, Sitam. The struggle continues.'
Andy Rowell is a member of the ShellGuilty Coalition