On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. Kiobel is Esther Kiobel. Esther Kiobel’s husband, Barinem Kiobel, was a prominent member of government who opposed the devastation wrought by Shell Oil and opposed the violence being committed against the opposition. In 1994, he was arrested, along with Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven others, mostly the leadership of Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP. They were tortured for a year and then hanged. The nine, the Ogoni 9, were then dumped in unmarked graves in a Port Harcourt cemetery. The rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it?
Esther Kiobel fled Nigeria, applied successfully for asylum status in the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and sued Shell Oil, aka Royal Dutch Petroleum, for their role in the torture and assassination of her husband and so many others. There’s more to the story. There’s the “ecological genocide” committed over decades by Shell and Chevron … in cooperation with the various national governments of Nigeria. There’s the story of women in the Niger Delta organizing, as they continue to do. And there’s the story of rapacious multinational corporations operating without restraints.
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday decided that Kiobel and her group don’t have a case, at least not in U.S. courts the way the law is currently written. The vote was 9 – 0. This decision is a setback for human rights organizations that hope to bring multinationals to justice, or at least to some sense of accountability, through the U.S. court systems.
Reporters and discussants of the Supreme Court decision have focused on the corporations. Some note the irony of corporations having the rights and standing of individuals, but not the responsibilities or constraints. Others focus on the impact on human rights suits, on corporations, on the prosecution of torture. In a quick and informal survey of articles, barely half reference Esther Kiobel, preferring instead the shorthand Kiobel.
Esther Kiobel is the story. Barinem Kiobel is dead. Ken Saro-Wiwa is dead. So are Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, and John Kpuinen. Erasing Esther Kiobel from the story does not honor the dead. It continues the narrative.
So, kudos to Katie Redford, of EarthRights International, who wrote: “There are only a few things that are clear about today’s decision in Kiobel. First, a lot of ink is going to be spilled trying to parse what it really means in the next few days. And a lot of attorney hours are going to be spent in the next few years litigating the issues in the lower courts. And of course, the Court dismissed Esther Kiobel and her fellow plaintiffs’ claims of torture, killing, and crimes against humanity, giving Shell a pass for these human rights abuses. That result is a shame.”
That result is a shame.
Esther Kiobel and her allies will find ways to continue their struggle for justice. Justice must be more than rememorative. It must exist in the present, and it must open new spaces for the future. Meanwhile, for now, let us make sure Esther Kiobel doesn’t vanish in the haze. Corporations are not people; people are people. Esther Kiobel is the story. Remember her name.