Nigeria: Economic and Social Rights Prevailed in the Ogoni Case
The nine-member African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) having ruled on the
Ogoni people vs. Nigeria Government is a sweeping affirmation of what the human rights community calls
ESC rights--defined by the UN's International Covenant on Economic, Social, and, Cultural Rights.
The commission called on Nigeria to undertake a "comprehensive cleanup of lands and rivers damaged
by oil operations." It must also ensure that the social and environmental impact of future oil development
on its territory does not harm local communities.
Human rights groups are hailing the commission's decision as a major breakthrough in the battle for
international recognition of ESC rights, which have long been given lesser
status--particularly by Western countries--than political and civil rights.
The case was filed shortly after the execution in November 1995 of nine leaders of the Movement for the
Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), including the world-renowned playwright and author, Ken
Saro-wiwa. MOSOP and Saro-wiwa had led a global campaign to publicize the plight of the Ogonis, a
minority in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, whose lands and rivers had been polluted for years as a result
of operations by Shell Petroleum Development Corporations, the area's largest foreign oil producer, and
the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). Protests by the Ogoni, especially in the early
1990s, were met with fierce military repression, including what one internal government memo called
"wasting operations" against Ogoni villages and suspected MOSOP activists. Scores of people were
killed and their property looted and burned.
The decision, which runs 14 pages, asserts that the government violated seven articles of the 1981
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, to which Nigeria is a signatory. They included the rights:
"to enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health," "to a general satisfactory environment
favorable to [the peoples'] development," and to "freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources."
According to the ruling, "By any measure of standards, its practice falls short of the minimum conduct
expected of governments." In a direct reference to the role of the oil corporations, the commission
observed: "The intervention of multinational corporations may be a potentially positive force for
development if the State and the people concerned are ever mindful of the common good and the sacred
rights of individuals and communities."
The decision is important for people throughout the world who suffer from corporate practices, said
Roger Normand, director of the New York-based Center for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
(CESR), which co-sponsored the case with SERAC.
"I believe that this can serve as a precedent not only throughout Africa, but also for all similar efforts to
hold governments accountable for gross human rights violations linked to abusive corporate practices," he
added. Normand and others also agreed with Morka that the decision is the strongest affirmation to date
by an inter-governmental body of ESC rights. Despite their inclusion in the 1948 Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, this family of rights have tended to be given second-class status by the West, including
Western-based human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In that respect, said Normand, the African Commission's decision "is moving ahead of western standards
in the protection of economic, social, and cultural rights--an important achievement for Africa, but an
example for the rest of the world."
(Excerpts of an article by Jim Lobe at http://www.africaaction.org/docs02/nig0207a.htm)