Settlement Reached in Human Rights Cases Against Royal Dutch/Shell
Students from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic Contribute to Major Settlement for Killing of Nigerian Activists.
Cambridge, MA - Students from Harvard Law School’s (HLS) International Human Rights Clinic contributed to a historic settlement reached in an Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case against Royal Dutch/Shell for human rights violations that occurred in Nigeria in the 1990s.
The parties in Wiwa v. Shell, which was scheduled for trial this month, agreed to settle claims charging Royal Dutch/Shell with complicity in the torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and other non-violent Nigerian activists in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta. The settlement provides a total of $15.5 million to compensate ten plaintiffs, who include family members of the deceased victims; to establish a trust intended to benefit the Ogoni people; and to cover a portion of plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs.
Under the supervision of Clinical Instructor Susan Farbstein, more than a dozen students supported the litigation, conducting legal research on complex evidentiary issues and assisting in drafting motions in limine and other pre-trial briefing. HLS student Leigh Sylvan (J.D. ’10) said that her work on the case offered her a rare opportunity to be at the epicenter of corporate accountability and human rights.
“Getting to work on Wiwa v. Shell offered an insightful look into the long and often surprising path of human rights litigation,” said Sylvan. “We had an amazing chance to be a part of an important case that provided a glimpse into the still-evolving process of achieving corporate accountability through ATS litigation.”
According to HLS student Kate Currie (J.D. ’09), her work on the Wiwa case provided an important reminder of the goals of ATS litigation.
“I was surprised by how many questions of trial strategy seeped into what at first glance appeared to be straight-forward legal analysis,” said Currie. “It was especially rewarding to meet the plaintiffs, to put faces to names, and to remind ourselves that this case was about them—vindicating the wrongs done to them and hopefully preventing others from suffering the same harms.”
Judith Chomsky, a cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who initiated the case back in 1996, noted that the Clinic was crucial to the success of the case and the settlement.
“The legal work of Susan Farbstein and her students was first-rate, and their enthusiasm and dedication reinvigorated us all,” said Chomsky.
Trial counsel Paul Hoffman also praised the ongoing work of the Clinic in international human rights litigation.
“The Harvard Human Rights Clinic provided invaluable assistance to the litigation team in the Wiwa v. Shell case and contributed mightily to the successful settlement in the case. The Clinic has become an indispensable part of the international human rights litigation landscape,” said Hoffman.
Both Hoffman and Chomsky have worked with the Clinic for a number of years. In addition to the Wiwa case, the two lawyers are co-counsel with the Clinic on In re Apartheid Litigation, an ATS case against four corporations for their complicity in human rights violations in apartheid South Africa, and on Mamani, et al. v. Sanchez-Berzain, et al., an ATS case against the former president and minister of defense of Bolivia concerning a 2003 massacre.
Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Wiwa v. SPDC, and Wiwa v. Anderson were filed on behalf of relatives of murdered Ogoni activists and other injured Ogonis who were fighting for human rights and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. Plaintiffs charged the Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria, and the former head of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, torture, and other egregious human rights violations.
In the early 1990s, the Ogoni, led by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, began organized, peaceful protests against Shell’s business practices. Shell grew increasingly concerned with the heightened international prominence of the Ogoni movement and made payments to security forces known to engage in human rights violations against local communities. The military government violently repressed demonstrations, arrested Ogoni activists, falsely accused nine Ogoni leaders of murder, and bribed witnesses to give false testimony. The nine accused, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were denied a fair trial and then hanged on November 10, 1995.
Farbstein said the decision to settle is a major human rights success that would provide significant compensation to those who were personally harmed as well as to the families of those who were killed. She applauded the students who spent their semester working on the case.
“This settlement represents another victory in holding corporations accountable for complicity in human rights violations, wherever they may be committed,” said Farbstein. “The clinical students were completely dedicated to this case and should feel gratified to have played a role in this very significant settlement.”
The Harvard Law students who have worked on this case include: Tamara Biolo Soares (LL.M. ’09), Kate Currie (J.D. ’09), Matt Wells (J.D. ’09), Alexia De Vicentis (J.D. ’10), Noga Firstenberg (J.D. ’10), Jason Green-Lowe (J.D. ’10), Ben Hoffman (J.D. ’11), Karl Procaccini (J.D. ’10), Chelsea Sharon (J.D. ’11), Julianne Stevenson (LL.M. ’09), Leigh Sylvan (J.D. ’10), Esti Tambay (J.D. ’10), and Claret Vargas (J.D. ’10).