It was "human rights vs. Big Oil" on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from 12 Nigerian citizens, who, in a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell, accuse the oil giant of aiding and abetting the Nigerian government in committing countless atrocities in the 1990s.
The case has precedent-setting potential, as it could mean that the days of corporations getting away with massive human rights abuse without legal consequence may be coming to an end.
The AFL-CIO filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Nigerian plaintiffs. In that brief, the AFL-CIO declared that corporations "should be held responsible when they are party to wrongful acts," whether those acts occur in the U.S. or overseas.
The Nigerians - granted political asylum in the U.S. - are former members of the Ogoni community in the Niger Delta, where Shell has conducted oil exploration for decades, causing irrevocable damage to the people there and their environment. Toxicity from constant oil spills has caused birth defects, diseases, and illnesses in the Ogoni people.
In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that carcinogens in local well water were about 900 times the level of what is considered safe, and that cleanup of the Ogoni environment would cost at least $1 billion, according to a report.
When local student and civic leaders began peaceful protests against the oil company, they found themselves rounded up, tortured, and even killed.
The most notorious of those incidents involved the government-sanctioned execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, to which Shell was directly linked. Saro-Wiwa, a journalist and environmental activist, helped found the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which helped put Shell's ecoterror into the spotlight.
Shell promptly denied any connection with, or responsibility for, that tragedy.
Those who survived the abuse fled. One of those survivors is Charles Wiwa, 44, who now resides in Chicago. After taking part in a rally at his home village, Wiwa was brutally beaten by 18 soldiers.
"They started beating me; horsewhipping me; clubbing me; kicking me with their boots for a really long time," Wiwa recalled. That beating, he added, lasted over two hours. After two more beatings, he was charged with unlawful assembly. After being released on bail, he said there were two attempts to abduct him. "When it became obvious that my life was at risk," he said, "I fled Nigeria."
Now, said Wiwa, the only place the Ogonis can bring Shell to justice is in the U.S. court. "Nigeria gets so much money from oil," he remarked. "There is no way they would be held accountable for anything in the courts in Nigeria."
"When a corporation contributes to genocide or crimes against humanity, they should be held liable," said Paul Hoffman, who is representing the Nigerians.
The plaintiffs are trying to utilize a 1789 law called the Alien Tort Statute, which allows U.S. courts to hear cases brought by foreigners for violations of international law and U.S. treaties. But that can't be used to sue corporations, Shell's lawyers claim.
Shell is seeking dismissal of the suit.
Marco Simons, legal director of Washington-based advocacy group Earthrights International, however, said he is optimistic. "I did not hear anything that fundamentally changes the outlook of this case," he remarked. "Some judges have views that a corporation should not be subject to suits for violation of international law. But we are quite optimistic that that will not be the view of the majority of the justices on the Supreme Court."
A decision in the case is expected by summer.
Photo: Charles Wiwa fled Nigeria in 1996, following a crackdown on protests against Shell. Wiwa now resides in Chicago. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos