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The Legacy of Saro-Wiwa

To many human rights, environmental and corporate social responsibility scholars the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa is all too familiar. Saro-Wiwa was a Nigerian author and environmental campaigner fighting the exploitation of natural resources and alleged human rights violation in his native Ogoniland in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. In 1995, Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian authorities following a trial in which he was found guilty of killing a group of elderly Ogoni people. The trial and execution was by many seen as a travesty of justice and allegations subsequently surfaced that witnesses were bribed in order to frame Saro-Wiwa. The main reason, however, for Saro-Wiwa’s international recognition was his peaceful fight against international corporations (mainly oil companies) operating in the Niger Delta. Following his death, Saro-Wiwa’s family has pursued numerous legal actions against Shell alleging that Shell aided the Nigerian authorities in arresting Saro-Wiwa. The latest developments in the most recent lawsuit, filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act before a federal court in New York, are that proceedings are to begin next week (NY Times has the story).  

Last year, a Californian court acquitted Chevron in a case also stemming from the Niger Delta under the same statute and no doubt more similar cases are likely to arise. The Saro-Wiwa case is often cited as one of the most glaring examples of international corporations committing human rights violations in their pursuit of profits. At the same time, it is evident that the bad publicity Shell incurred from the incident has led to a heightened focus on the action of international corporations and the effect that their actions have on the enjoyment of basic human rights as well as on the environment.  Something which is to be welcomed. This is, for instance, witnessed in initiatives such as the UN’s Global Compact initiative and the UN Norms and Responsibilities for Transnational Enterprises. Although these instruments are far from perfect and of limited legal significance, they serve to underline the importance of responsible corporate behaviour. Although it is of little comfort to Saro-Wiwa’s family, he was right when he said, according to his son as quoted in the NY Times story, that “one day Shell would be on trial”.

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