Martyrdom is hard to come across in a free society: one might find lots of lawyers, but not that many martyrs. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent Nigerian author, struggled against an abusive system of laws and paid with his life for his resistance. He recognized that the presence of the Royal Dutch/Shell Conglomerate in his homeland, the Ogoni province of Nigeria, was leaving his people economically strangulated and politically marginalized.
From 1993 to 1995, he focused his attention on forcing Shell to pay the Ogoni people compensation for the pollution they caused and their negligence of Ogoni Society. He decried abuses in political power and blamed Shell for abetting an oppressive Nigerian regime, including supplying them with arms.
In 1995, however, after the death of two prominent leaders of the Ogoni, Saro-Wiwa was tried by "special tribunal"--by all accounts a sham of justice where most of the witnesses were paid to testify falsely--and hanged for murder. The trial drew heavy international criticism and was widely viewed as an attempt by the Nigerian government, at the request of Shell, to eliminate one of the most prominent activists fighting for social and economic justice.
The global public eye fixated transformed Saro-Wiwa into one of the most prominent environmental and civil rights martyrs of the decade: he was looked upon as a moral giant who fought and lost to an abusive, undemocratic regime and the greedy, unaccountable spectre of one of the world's largest oil companies. His final statement to those about to hang him reflected the dignity and disgust that one would expect from a modern day martyr: "Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land…I have devoted… my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated....Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory."
Whether Saro-Wiwa was the innocent martyr he is made out to be is a matter of contention. Some argue that Saro-Wiwa invited and incited the Ogoni to unjust civil disobedience; others claim that while he never ordered murders, he is still responsible for fanning the flames of frustration in the hearts of the Ogoni with his words and actions. Undoubtedly, Saro-Wiwa mobilized the Ogoni to counter the gross injustice of their situation. He believed in the accountability of Shell to Ogoni, who's land was being exploited; and he believed they should be compensated for their loss.
The pursuit of justice continues to this day, and even into our own society. Dr. Owens Wiwa filed a civil suit in the United States of America shortly after his brother's execution in 1995. Wiwa accuses Shell of effecting a holocaust against his people, alleging that they are guilty of summary execution, crimes against humanity, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, violations of the rights to life, liberty, security of person, and peaceful assembly, wrongful death, assault and battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy.
Undoubtedly, a serious series of crimes. Just this week, the judge in charge of this case decided that the federal Courts of the United States of America had jurisdiction over this case, and that the civil suit could indeed be heard so many thousands of miles away from the original infractions. On the basis of the fact that the plaintiff has emigrated to this country and that the defendant is active within the borders of the United States of America, the judge has allowed the American judicial system to become an international human rights court with enough authority to hold one of the largest corporations in the world accountable for actions it perpetrated in the sovereign territory of another country.
While I do not believe that justice was served in the Saro-Wiwa case any more than Ken Saro-Wiwa did--he felt the trial such a farce that he read a newspaper as the most damning testimonies were deposed against him in court--this decision frightens me. A system of accountability for the actions of multinational actors like Royal Dutch/Shell is most certainly needed, yet such a legal forum should not be entirely American. While I respect the American system--a society that produces the entertainment of Erin Brockovitch is infinitely preferable to live in than one that produces the pain and struggle of Ken Saro-Wiwa--I respect it because it's right for the United States, not for the rest of the world.
Justice is too deeply steeped in cultural values and judgement too strongly influenced by social perceptions to allow an exclusively American court to hear a suit involving so many international actors. The injustice faced here is one that individuals all over the world must confront: How do we hold large multinational corporations--some of them richer and more powerful than entire countries--accountable for their actions? This cannot be done on the basis of one legal system, because one legal system does not include the values and ideas of all who are involved. It's equivalent to saying that only white males can serve as jurors: It denies the variety of perspectives that are necessary for fairness. By not creating some sort of global forum for this debate, by not having an international court that guarantees the norms of behavior and basic human rights, the great danger is that justice will never be served
Rohan R. Gulrajani '02 is a engineering concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.