Shell’s Verdict, ‘Environmental crimes are hard to hide’ says activist Nnimmo Bassey

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After 13 years of legal wrangling, the court of appeal in The Hague has ruled that Shell is accountable for the oil pollution from it’s pipelines and wells in Nigeria. The case against parent company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria (SPDC) was instituted in 2008 by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) and four Nigerian farmers.

The case is unique because it is the first time a Dutch company has been held liable together with its foreign subsidiary for the breach of its duty of care abroad. It held Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary liable for two leaks that spewed oil over an area of a total of about 60 football pitches in two villages, saying that it could not be established “beyond a reasonable doubt” that saboteurs were to blame.

In response to Green Angle’s request for a comment on the judgement, environmental activist and Chair of Health of Mother Earth Foundation HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, said, ”This judgement didn’t come as a surprise to someone of us. The evidence was overwhelming and has refused to disappear even till now. There are some crimes that are hard to hide. Environmental crimes are of that sort. It takes willful blindness to pretend not to see, smell or feel. We are happy that Shell has been told the truth today. It took long, two plaintiffs died, but their struggle has not been in vain. No corporation – private or public- should ever think they can commit Ecocide in the Niger Delta and not be held accountable. It may take long, but judgment day comes!”

“This is fantastic news for the environment and people living in developing countries,” said Friends of the Earth’s Netherlands head, Donald Pols. “It means people in developing countries can take on the multinationals who do them harm.” ”This victory will herald the beginning of a new era in which large multinationals such as Shell can no longer go about their business lawlessly but are accountable for their entire operations, including overseas.”

Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerian plaintiffs have always held Shell and SPDC individually responsible for the oil spills and the failure to clean up the pollution. The judge decided that Shell will be required to give the Nigerian plaintiffs financial compensation. The judge has also been asked to order Shell to clean up the pollution and prevent further spills. 

Also responding to the judgement, Jennifer Igwe, a Nigerian environmental journalist told Green Angle, ”Finally, there is compensation for decades of pollution and degradation by big league oil companies. Sadly, many poor have died with the destroyed ecosystem. I just hope the compensation won’t be peanuts or the usual style of construction of projects, that are glaringly, a far cry from what the people they have tormented perennially deserve, including their children, grandchildren and other offsprings. More judgements would surely follow. Kudos to all who kept the campaign and fight against environmental pollution alive, particularly the early activists.”

Before the judgment, Chima Williams of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action) said: “Today’s decisions will determine whether or not transnational companies will be obliged to respond in a swift and positive way when environmental complaints are made from their host country. This case has taken so long that two claimants are no longer alive. But the problems caused by the immense oil spill from Shell’s pipelines have still not been resolved after 13 years. It hurts that this can happen. The court has an opportunity today to set a new standard that will give hope to ordinary citizens that no matter how powerful a company is, there will always be a day of reckoning.” 

Channa Samkalden, lawyer for the Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, added: “What we have already achieved in all these years of litigation is that Dutch companies are being held accountable for their behaviour abroad. The fact that Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerian claimants succeeded in this is in itself groundbreaking.”

The court’s ruling that Shell is liable for the environmental pollution in Nigeria has far-reaching consequences for the corporate accountability policy of Dutch multinationals. According to Friends of the Earth Netherlands, however, ”the lengthy legal proceedings have shown that there is a worldwide need for better and clearer legislation and regulations for transnational corporations. The Nigeria lawsuit has shown that when it comes to environmental pollution, a large company like Shell applies double standards: in the Netherlands, such oil spills would never be accepted. It is time for a legally binding instrument to regulate transnational corporations with respect to human rights. European citizens can call upon the European Commission to enforce human rights and environmental due diligence.”

The amount of compensation will be established at a later date. The court did not specify how many of the four farmers would receive compensation.

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