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Opinion

A quarter-century later: The unfinished business of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine

Twenty-five years ago on November 10 1995, a tragedy in Nigeria shocked the world. The unexpected execution of the Ogoni Nine activists—including the environmental and human rights advocate Ken Saro-Wiwa—by the Abacha military regime sent a thunderclap across Nigeria and a lightning bolt around the globe. Their convictions on dubious charges of complicity in the murder of Ogoni tribal leaders were expected; their summary executions, despite public appeals by the US, UK and other governments, were unexpected. Shell’s private appeals for clemency, widely considered to have been too little and too late given its dominant role in the Niger Delta, also went unheeded. Shell’s reputation was singed and a global debate ignited over the human rights responsibilities of multinational corporations. That debate—and the business and human rights agenda to which it gave impetus—can be informed once again by the legacy of the Ogoni Nine.

Three converging factors give this anniversary particular resonance. The upsurge of activism in Nigeria last month has been met with fatal repression but has also brought fresh aspirations in this 60th anniversary year of independence. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement continue to expose economic inequality and racial injustice as well as the uneven accountability of governments; at the same time, both challenge not only commitments to corporate responsibility, but also the fundamentals of corporate purpose. The result of last week’s US presidential election has now set the stage for a renewed American commitment to democracy and human rights as priorities for foreign policy and diplomacy—and heightened expectations everywhere for civil society and business alike.

The momentum for reform is accelerating as a new generation demands change: above all, effective, accountable government that has long been stifled by corruption and ethnic tension.

First, tens of thousands of mostly young Nigerians across religious and ethnic divides protested last month in the streets of Lagos and other cities and towns across the country—including the Niger Delta—to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and end police brutality and impunity. The movement’s mutual affinities with Black Lives Matter as it emerged in the US are striking and inspiring, as reflected in the international support that it has attracted. The momentum for reform is accelerating as a new generation demands change: above all, effective, accountable government that has long been stifled by corruption and ethnic tension.

These aspirations are commonly held across diverse communities of the Niger Delta, along with a clean-up of the areas polluted by the oil companies documented by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) in 2011. According to an investigation completed in June by four NGOs including Amnesty International, work has begun on only 11% of the planned clean-up sites and ‘after nine years of promises without proper action, the people of Ogoniland are sick of dirty drinking water’. The enduring tragedy of the Ogoni Nine and indeed of the communities of Niger Delta is that pollution, corruption, poverty and impunity remain entrenched. The time has come—yet again—for a new compact for the Niger Delta that imposes both government and corporate accountability and, in turn, empowers civil society and delivers economic opportunity.

Two multi-stakeholder initiatives bringing together governments, oil companies and NGOs still have important roles and unfulfilled potential to contribute: the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPSHR) and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The VPSHR can strengthen its human rights training with the Nigerian government and security forces to protect human rights; the EITI can strengthen its efforts to ensure revenue transparency at the state as well as the federal level. Both can expand their stakeholder engagement with the communities of the Delta.

Second, the combination of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter has accelerated the shift from corporate responsibility to purpose, from shareowner to stakeholder capitalism. COVID-19 has elevated workplace health and safety and as well as worker voice, if not power. That movement has advanced the agenda from diversity and inclusion to empowerment and advancement. Both have pierced the post-2008 inertia on the part of business and government alike in confronting inequality. Corporate purpose will now be measured by its impact on the trio of crises: climate, inequality and injustice. Human rights policies, due diligence processes and remedy mechanisms remain necessary but are insufficient; the new test is action, impact and advocacy for human rights, civil rights and labour rights.

Moreover, as the 10th anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) approaches in June 2021, it is time to recognise reality. Too many states are failing in their duty to protect human rights. Too many companies are failing in their responsibility to respect human rights. This reality is partly explained but not excused by the greater pressure imposed on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights by the failure of the state duty to protect, as autocratic regimes act with greater impunity and illiberal democracies mimic them.

The Ogoni Nine would not have accepted the distinction between Shell respecting or protecting their human rights. Nor now, probably, would Shell—given what it has learned over the years—and nor should the world, even as we rightly put even more pressure on governments as well as companies.

The debate necessary now should focus on how to strengthen the implementation of the state duty to protect at both the national and international levels and at the time to infuse the corporate responsibility to respect with the spirit and substance of protect—even if the letter of protect will not be altered due to the complexities of international law. The Ogoni Nine would not have accepted the distinction between Shell respecting or protecting their human rights. Nor now, probably, would Shell—given what it has learned over the years—and nor should the world, even as we rightly put even more pressure on governments as well as companies.

At the same time, the pandemic has put a new spotlight on the shared space of the rule of law, accountable governance and civic freedoms—freedom of expression, assembly and association—that are the essential underpinnings of both civil society and profitable, sustainable business environments. Despite what should be a common interest in protecting those civic freedoms and those who struggle to safeguard them, companies across industries—above all extractives and agriculture—were complicit in 572 physical or legal attacks on human rights defenders in 2019 and over 2,300 since 2015 (according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre). The shared space has come under even greater pressure as governments (including Algeria, China, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Turkey, Egypt, Cambodia, El Salvador, Honduras, Hungary, Poland and Iran) have used the pandemic as pretext for curtailing peaceful protests and arresting human rights defenders and other activists. Companies have a responsibility to support human rights defenders at risk in situations such as that faced by Shell in Nigeria 25 years ago—where they have caused, contributed or are linked to such threats—and they have an opportunity elsewhere in situations where they may not have a clear responsibility but nonetheless can act to protect rights and save lives. We have seen encouraging examples of corporate activism especially in the US this year—as the Business Roundtable called for police reform after the killing of George Floyd and commitments to long-overdue initiatives to address racial injustice and inequality.

Third, the defeat of Donald Trump and the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have kindled hope not only among America’s democratic allies but also in civil society and human rights defenders around the world. Even as they focus on the intertwined priorities of public health and economic recovery while trying to heal the deep divisions among Americans at home, Biden and Harris know they must restore America’s moral authority abroad with humility, consistency and creativity. That will mean supporting democratic aspirations, human rights, and networks of activists struggling for dignity and accountability, demonstrating American values and interest converge rather than compete.

The new Biden Administration can regain leadership on the business and human rights agenda by making clear its expectations for American business in both the domestic and international arenas.

The return of the US to a primary leadership role in the international community may diminish some pressures on American companies, but will also elevate expectations for them to show greater responsibility. From extractives and agriculture to apparel, technology, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, companies across industries will be expected to reinforce respect for human rights across their operations and supply chains. The new Biden Administration can regain leadership on the business and human rights agenda by making clear its expectations for American business in both the domestic and international arenas. One starting point would be to get back on track with mandatory human rights due diligence by reviving SEC implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 and 1504 (on conflict minerals and extractive revenue transparency respectively), even if comprehensive mandatory due diligence aligned with the EU and other jurisdictions may not be possible without a Democratic majority in the US Senate. Another promising initiative would be to revive and update the December 2016 National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct with a commitment to innovation and impact.

A quarter-century after the executions of the Ogoni Nine, their legacy has yet to transcend tragedy. But it can take on new significance if a chastened world, disrupted by pandemic and confronted by injustice, moves toward a new era of democratic accountability that puts human rights first. We can see the stirrings of that new era in this fateful year.

Bennett Freeman led the development of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in 2000 and represented Oxfam on the board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative from 2006-09. He authored the report 'Shared Space Under Pressure: Business Support for Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders' published by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and International Service for Human Rights in 2018