30 Charge them with manslaughter

First published on 14 April 2011 by Pambazuka News[1]

People who have suffered the impact of unjust practices and those who have been victims of abuse from corporate impunity will heave a sigh of relief the day directors of such companies are brought to court from behind their corporate shields. The spins and the twists in legal tangos that play out so impassively will become a thing of the past.

Whereas corporations do not sweat in the dock, their directors, who are human like the rest of us, may. It is also possible that pleas from the dock would be couched in humane terms and that actions and reactions would become more or less equal as they usually are in physical matters.

In sum, people would sense that justice is reachable in many cases of confrontation between them and corporate entities.

These are some of the hopes being raised by the possibility of top guns at BP being charged for manslaughter over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of April 2010. If this happens, it will send a strong signal to leaders of companies that expose their workers to extreme personal risks.

It will also send signals to companies engaged in reckless activities that severely impact people and degrade their environment. In addition, it will offer a glimpse into what may become the norm if an international environment or climate crimes tribunal is set up for cases of ecocide.

It has been reported that investigators are pawing over documents and emails that may indicate whether Tony Hayward, former BP chief executive, and other top management officers made decisions or played key roles in what led to arguably the most horrendous environmental disaster in US history. That incident killed 11 workers and spewed yet unknown barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

The internal investigation carried out by BP immediately after the disaster showed that their managers misread pressure data and authorised workers of the Deep Water Horizon rig to replace drilling fluid in the well with seawater – one of the moves in cost cutting suspected to have triggered the disaster.

BP has admitted to having made some mistakes but sticks to the claim that they were not ‘grossly’ negligent.

There is something quite gross about that word ‘gross’ before the word ‘negligence’. If it sticks, the possible fines to be slapped on BP may rise from about US$5 billion to US$21 billion. It will also complicate things for BP in their dealings with the partners on the rig, as they seek to share the costs of the clean-up expected to reach about US$42 billion.

The significance of this case would also be found in the fact that the directors of BP would be unable to hide behind the corporate shield, as is often the case with corporate entities who are persons before the law only for as much as capacity to earn income is concerned; and are phantoms when it comes to responsibility for acts of impunity.

Think how instructive it would have been to line up the directors of Chevron for the environmental crimes in the Ecuadorian Amazonia or those of Shell, Exxon, Chevron, AGIP and the rest for their human rights and ecocide in the Niger Delta. If manslaughter charges are pressed against officials of BP, then the days of companies only being fined and the directors avoiding the dock will soon become history.

Obviously, BP and other corporations will not take kindly to this move. Their arsenal is loaded with tools with which to frustrate legal procedures. Some of them have batteries of lawyers with whom they harass hapless victims and keep the wheels of legal suits spinning.

There is no need to wonder how corporations have got away with murder all the time. One fact is that governments have over the years become largely privatised in the sense that they depend on corporations for revenue and for monetised solutions to virtually every problem.

While suing directors of companies may be a daunting prospect, considering their propensity to keep cases dragging endlessly, it is nevertheless a necessary step towards giving companies a truly human face and maybe a human heart.

We cannot avoid reaching the conclusion that companies behave in a heartless manner because they are fashioned to be unaccountable and can carry out inhuman acts without blinking an eyelid.

Are you not struck by the fact that oil company leaders are ordinarily nice and personable persons, but that this genial nature changes once they put on their corporate toga?


  1. Now available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201104150796.html (accessed on 31 May 2016)

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