Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Environmental justice comes to those who wait

A very positive milestone has been reached in the name of environmental justice, as reported in Nigerian newspaper This Day. For more than a decade, the Ogoni tribe in the Niger Delta has struggled to protect their land and their people from the damage done by local oil exploration and extraction. In the 1980s and 1990s, local protesters - many of them targeting their ire at Shell as the major corporation operating in the region - had some success in attracting international attention, but were then suppressed by Colonel Sani Abacha's military regime. Ultimately, several protesters - including local leader Ken Saro-Wiwa - were tried and hanged, all as Shell turned a blind eye. Indeed, many have postulated that Shell gave a helping hand to the Nigerian authorities... We may never know the details. However, the families of the protesters have now secured something of a victory, following a 13-year attempt to take Shell to court under an ancient US federal law, now winning an out-of-court settlement of $15.5m. Saro-Wiwa's son and other plaintiffs will use some of the funds to establish a community trust for the Ogoni, which will support projects in areas such as education, agriculture and small enterprise development. It's not a huge amount of money, but it will help. Perhaps more important are the ramifications of this case across Nigeria and globally, as the concept of corporate social responsibility is reinforced and multinationals are shown not to be above the law. This is Saro-Wiwa's legacy.


Anice said...

Thanks Eazibee

A happy ending to the Saro-Wiwa tragedy - the law can come good in the end.

The whole story exposes just how arbitrary the whole legal process can be. In this case it granted property rights to an Anglo-Dutch firm for minerals in Africa, gave further rights to a tribe, the Ogoni, because they happened to live near where some oil was moved by millions of years of tectonic activity. Then Nigerian law sentenced their protestor to death on spurious ground, and now an old US statute is persuading Shell to give a large sum of money to Saro-Wiwa's relatives. There may be further legal arbitrariness in the future - from the US, Nigeria or wherever - when the trust fund set up with the money gets challenged in some way.

I can't help thinking the randomness of the law is just too arbitrary in most countries at the moment to deliver environment justice. I don't mean moving against the legal system, just that we need to accept moral justice and legal justice have different evolutions and are only haphazardly related in cases like these.

The upside is that it means there’s plenty of scope for law to become more ‘just’, making cases like this more common - optimistic, perhaps, but there's always a reason to be hopeful!

Hope Ethiopia was good!

eazibee said...

Thanks, Anice

Completely agree about the arbitrariness of the law in cases like these - I've been thinking about this a lot lately and would like to do some research in this field, if only I could find the time / support to do so. I do think there is scope for international (and domestic) law to evolve so as to be better equipped to mete out justice in such cases. Whether the international community considers this to be a priority alongside so many other pressing concerns is another matter...

Onwards and upwards, though! There's no doubt that this case sets some kind of useful / informative precedent.


ps - Ethiopia was good, thanks, lack of access to RTBH notwithstanding.

Anice said...

Something like that could be brilliant! I can imagine how lack of time, funds and support could be a block for you - perhaps an institution like the Soros foundation could help?

And rather than research, could you try to establish an NGO dedicated to developing an a-legal consensus, perhaps emerging from common values rooted in different religions, traditions and cultural norms, to establish internationally-agreeable principles to do with the allocation of resources and different aspects of property rights?

Ambitious, certainly, but faith in market-based systems has been knocked recently, and law has usually deserved its sneers. There's never been a better time!

Let me know if I or anyone else from the RTBH community could help!