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Professor John Knox quoted in Greenwire story about Supreme Court case regarding Shell Oil

When Nigerians protested against the environmental devastation in the oil-rich Ogoni region in the early 1990s, the government response was brutal.

The subsequent crackdown led to allegations of widespread human rights abuses that still reverberate today.

Fast-forward 18 years and 12 Nigerians who say they were affected by the government actions are gearing up for a Supreme Court case, to be argued next week. The defendant is not the Nigerian government, but Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

The court is set to decide whether the plaintiffs can sue Shell for its alleged role in “aiding and abetting” the Nigerian government.

Since 1958, a local arm of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant has operated in the region and, the Ogoni people say, assisted the Nigerian government in its violent crackdowns on the Ogoni protesters in 1993 and 1994.

The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, is one of the most closely watched of the new Supreme Court term and will be the first to be argued Monday (Greenwire, Sept. 24).

But what tends to be forgotten amid the legal jousting over the technical question before the court — whether the 1789 Alien Tort Statute can be applied to companies over actions that took place overseas — is the impetus behind the protests in the first place.

That the underlying environmental damage is not at issue in the case highlights the lack of worldwide consensus on whether solely environmental claims can be viewed as violations of the “law of nations” that are actionable in court.

The phrase “law of nations” features in the Alien Tort Statute and is the reason why human rights plaintiffs have been able to sue individuals and corporations for alleged abuses for the past 32 years.

‘I’m the guy’

The Supreme Court’s interest in the subject comes at a time when there is evidence of a global move toward recognizing environmental claims as a category of human rights violations.

Just this summer, the U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, ordered a three-year study on “human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean and healthy and sustainable environment” that will prompt further debate.

“They decided to appoint an expert on human rights and the environment,” said John Knox, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law. “I’m the guy.”

After Knox, a former State Department attorney, completes his task, “hopefully, there would be a clearer understanding of what human rights obligations states have to environmental protection,” he said.

Although any conclusions reached by Knox would not have an instant impact in courts of law, there would be a “trickle-down effect” if they are endorsed by the United Nations, he added. That’s because plaintiffs would be able to cite the language when they file lawsuits.

Read the full story here.