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Obama on Wrong Side in Shell Oil Human Rights Case

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Shell Oil, which profits most from the Ogoni people’s degradation and oppression, claims it is just a bystander, an innocent party.”

When Shell Oil walked into the U.S. Supreme Court building, this week, claiming that it is not responsible for the torture and murder of Nigerians in its oil fields in the Niger River Delta, the Dutch corporation had a friend in the courtroom: the Obama administration. The U.S. Solicitor General’s office was there to urge the High Court to rule in Shell’s favor in the case, and to shield other foreign corporations from being sued in U.S. Courts for complicity in human rights abuses overseas. Obama’s lawyers also asked the Supreme Court not to make any decision on whether U.S.-based corporations could be sued under the 200-year-old Alien Tort Statue. A ruling on that question would affect some of the biggest corporations in country: Exxon Mobile, Chevron, Unocal, Coca-Cola, Pfizer pharmaceuticals, and the Ford Motor Company – all of which have been sued under either the Alien Tort law or the Torture Victim Protection Act. By asking the court not to make a broad decision, the administration is also protecting these corporate giants from culpability for rights abuses.

In Shell’s case, 12 Nigerians charge the oil company with being an accomplice to torture, extra judicial executions and crimes against humanity. One of the plaintiffs is the widow of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, who wasexecuted by the Nigerian government along with human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and other leaders of the Ogoni people in 1995. Their homeland, the Niger Delta, had been turned into an environmental wasteland for the benefit of Shell Oil and corrupt Nigerian government officials, with the population living under martial law. Shell Oil, which profits most from the Ogoni people’s degradation and oppression, claims it is just a bystander, an innocent party – that it had nothing to do with the Nigerian government’s atrocities. But, of course, the Nigerian government’s murderous policies were designed to protect the profitability of Shell’s operations. Shell Oil created the nightmare in the Niger Delta – just as its sister corporations do all around the world, under the protection of friendly governments.

Shell claims it is not a person.”

At the U.S. Supreme Court, Shell Oil argued that the United States should not “impose our law onto foreign countries.” What an outrageous position! Shell Oil imposes itself on the people of the Niger Delta, unleashing what is arguably the worst environmental disaster on Earth, and then asks for legal immunity.

Shell Oil also argues that it cannot be sued under the Alien Tort Statue, because it is not a person. Two hundred years ago, when the law was written, nobody thought corporations were people. Later, corporations fought for and got recognition as a kind of legal person in the United States, allowing them to claim the inalienable rights of actual human beings. But now, under these circumstances, Shell Oil claims it is not a person, subject to human law, but an entity possessing corporate immunities.

The Alien Tort Law was used to compensate Holocaust survivors who had been used as slave labor by corporations that worked with the Nazis. Shell Oil’s operations in Nigeria have also sown a holocaust, for which there must be no impunity.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at

Direct download: 20101003_gf_ShellSCOTUS.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:23pm EDT