Esther Kiobel Gets Her Day at the Supreme Court

Esther Kiobel Gets Her Day at the Supreme Court

NOTE: This is a guest post from Katie Redford, Co-founder and U.S. Director of EarthRights International. EarthRights International (ERI) is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that combines the power of law and the power of people in defense of human rights and the environment.

On October 1st, a critical human rights case known as Kiobel v. Shell, went before the U.S. Supreme Court. Esther Kiobel and eleven other indigenous Ogoni plaintiffs have accused Shell Oil of complicity in human rights abuses during the 1990s, when the Nigerian military cracked down violently on a peaceful grassroots movement protesting Shell’s oil activities in the Niger Delta. Villages were burned. Protestors were tortured. Thousands were displaced. Most famously, nine community leaders known as the Ogoni Nine, including Esther’s husband, were tortured and executed after a sham military trial.

Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary are not only accused of conspiring with and financing this brutal campaign. They are accused of actually calling in the military to suppress specific protests, and of providing the military with food, transport, and compensation.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post here on the Care2 blog about the Kiobel case, which reached the Supreme Court this year after a decade of litigation. As lawyers tend to do, I spent a lot of time on the legal background.

Last Monday, both during the arguments inside the court and the rally outside, I was reminded again of the importance of the human stories that are at the heart of this case.

After sitting through an hour of legal arguments focused on the jurisdiction of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), the intentions of this nation’s founding fathers who signed the ATS into law in 1789, and hypothetical anecdotes about long-deceased French ambassadors, Esther Kiobel and five of her co-plaintiffs walked down the steps of the Supreme Court to join the small but vocal crowd of demonstrators waiting for them.

Esther was invited to the front, where she began to read a prepared statement excerpted from the legal documents in the case. She faltered for a moment, then lowered the paper, tears welling in her eyes, and spoke instead directly from her heart. She spoke of her last conversations with her husband, Barinem, before his execution. She described how she was tortured by the Nigerian military. How she barely avoided being raped. Her firm belief that Shell was behind it all.

She cried. The crowd sobbed with her.

And somehow, through all that pain, she thanked us. She thanked the lawyers for giving her a chance at justice. She thanked the protestors for caring enough to chant her name. And she thanked the media for giving her a platform to tell her story.

Lawyers and reporters will say that the heart of the Kiobel v. Shell case is a pair of jurisdictional questions about the Alien Tort Statute: (1) whether it applies to corporations, and (2) whether it applies to human rights abuses overseas. But that’s just what corporate defendants argue. I say the heart of this case is Esther Kiobel, a woman who has bravely fought Shell Oil all the way from the Niger Delta to the U.S. Supreme Court. The heart of this case is her eleven co-plaintiffs, all victims of egregious human rights abuses, all determined to find a courtroom that will give them a fair shake. The heart of this case, as Paul Hoffman eloquently told the Supreme Court last Monday, is a story of conspiracy, bribery, torture, and crimes against humanity, and Shell’s alleged role in those crimes.

In the end, though, no matter how compelling the story, no matter how big its heart, it will ultimately come down to what the nine justices make of the legal maneuvering made by each side. And I’ll admit that, as a lawyer, I find the inside baseball fascinating. But when the Supreme Court releases its decision, sometime between now and June, the inside baseball ends. The human beings behind these cases won’t be asking their lawyers about the legal subtleties.

They’ll only be asking, “Can I still have my day in court?”

I hope the answer is a simple “yes.”

Corporations can’t be allowed to get away with torture and murder. They aren’t too big to punish. Please join our TooBigToPunish? campaign and show your support for human rights and corporate accountability.


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