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.


Related Stories:

Can Corporations Be Liable For Human Rights Abuses?

Update: Brazilian Supreme Court Overturns Suspension Of Belo Monte Dam

Dow Chemical Pays Corporate Spies to Track Activist Group “The Yes Men”


Photo of the rally outside the Supreme Court courtesy of EarthRights International.


ANA MARIJA R5 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Jennifer C.
Past Member 5 years ago


Esther K.
Esther Kiobel5 years ago

Special thanks to Katie Redford, also, many thanks to all the Nonprofit Group, Media, friends and well-wishers, who stood by the Oppressed seeking Justice for the Genocidal activities.God bless you all. Corporations like shell who enjoy the previledge of doing business in America and all the other pay back of corporate personhood, should be answerable for their role in gross human rights violations. My desire is for our case to become a legal precedence by which present and future victims of human rights violations can turn to United States court for relief, as provided by the Alien Tort Statues of 1789. Shell (SPDC) fighting hard for the case not to be heard because they knew that I have evidence that can send them to prison if they were to be charged.
During the deposition at Philadelphia with shell lawyer, she was outraged at the first at the first evidence shown to her. She was silence for a while, then porceeded asking me how much I was sueing for. I replied her that I want Justice for my husband and my family period.
I challenged them not to be scared, instead prove themself not guilty. My late husband blood is crying out looking for justice. Seeing my late husband killers, also all the perpetrators of human rights abusers out there loose is extremely frightened and painful.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

I am too low-income to spend any money on politics, including advocacy, which I believe to be futile for the 99%--only the 1% can get ahead by spending money on politics.

Declan Woods
Declan Woods5 years ago

Shame on Shell, we know what they can do from our own experience in Rossport Co Mayo Ireland. I support Esther and Katie and Thank them for their true leadership. Perhaps Governments and so called Politicians will learn from them. Represent the people not business!!

Desiree Ponton
Desiree P5 years ago

Thank you for your strong spirit and following your heart to see Shell face the law and have their terrible acts exposed. You are a bright light in a dark world. People like you make possitive change possible.

Stephanie A.
Stevie A5 years ago

Thank you, Care2 for existing, for giving us a place to participate in history-making protests and decisions. Thank you, Katie Redford for the work you did to help justice prevail. And, most of all many thanks to Esther Kiobel, who persevered in the face of terrible odds, with no guarantee and finally won the chance to help establish precedent for holding corporations responsible. Not just for herself, because she cannot get her husband back, she cannot retrieve the lost years of her life, the resources she used are spent - AND she is a HERA to me and other communities who are bullied by corporations.

Emefa Dekonor
Emefa Dekonor5 years ago

Karma for Shell! Wishing Esther Well and Abundant Blessings in the Future!

Vicky P.
Vicky P5 years ago

good, hope shell loses

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

thanks for sharing