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Remembering Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Ken Saro-Wiwa

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Landmark Trial, Wiwa v. Shell, Begins in Five Weeks

On April 20th, seven outstanding environmental leaders were awarded the 2009 Goldman Prize - the "Nobel Prize of the environmental movement" - in San Francisco. As a former prize winner, my congratulations go out to them, along with my wishes for the success of their important struggles; but my heart and thoughts are also with another fellow Goldman Prize winner, whose soul has passed on but whose fierce struggle continues. Fourteen years ago, Ken Saro-Wiwa received the Goldman Prize for his leadership of a powerful non-violent movement against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in the Ogoni region of Nigeria. He was hanged seven months later after a sham trial condemned around the world.

On the surface, there is little in common between me, a member of the Karen people in Burma, and Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Nigeria's indigenous Ogoni people. But go a little deeper, and our stories and struggles are one and the same: the universal struggle of indigenous peoples for our rights, livelihoods and dignity in the face of unchecked exploitation of natural resources in our homelands.

In Burma, Nigeria, and countless other places around the globe, our lands and our peoples have faced gross human rights abuses and staggering environmental degradation. These problems have often been driven by multinational oil companies, sustained by corrupt and brutal governments all too willing to loot resources and oppress their own people for monetary gain.

Beginning May 26th, my organization, EarthRights International, will, in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, represent Ken Saro-Wiwa's family and other Ogoni plaintiffs in a landmark trial in federal court, Wiwa v. Shell.

In the early 1990s, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an acclaimed writer and environmental activist, led the Ogoni people in calling on Shell to halt its harmful activities in Ogoni, including gas flaring - a destructive practice that Shell continues even today. Their struggle was met with deliberate destruction of villages, murder, torture, and extra-judicial executions, as Shell colluded with the Nigerian military government to suppress local opposition to its practices.

For too long, corporations have ridden roughshod over indigenous peoples, confident that they will never be held accountable for their wrongs. The case going to trial next month shows that companies can no longer be assured of operating with impunity. Corporations, like individuals, must abide by the law, or face serious repercussions - in both legal courts and the court of global public opinion.

On April 20th, I and previous Goldman Prize recipients issued an open letter in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa. As we mourn his unjust and untimely death, we also celebrate his and the Ogoni people's victory in exposing Shell's actions to the world, and we raise our voices in unity to call for environmental justice, corporate accountability, and respect for human rights - in Ogoni and around the globe.

In a statement before his execution, Ken Saro-Wiwa said:

I have no doubt at all about the ultimate success of my cause, no matter the trials and tribulations which I and those who believe with me may encounter on our journey. Nor imprisonment nor death can stop our ultimate victory.

The struggle in Ogoni - and of indigenous peoples and affected communities around the world - is far from won. But, by uniting to fight peacefully for human rights and environmental justice, and by using the power of the law, we have already made strides that were once unthinkable. On May 26th, a blow will be struck on the side of justice when Shell will at last answer in court for its complicity in egregious human rights abuses in Nigeria.

The open letter from Goldman Prize winners can be read at www.wiwaopenletter.org. More information about Wiwa v. Shell can be found at www.WiwavShell.org .