Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Niger Delta Villagers vs. Shell: Seeking Justice Abroad

Legal action against Shell failed in Nigerian courts. So now villagers from the Niger Delta are bringing the fight to Shell in their home country of the Netherlands.
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An oil disaster in the Niger Delta. Photograph by Sosialistisk Ungdom.

In the latest case of Nigerians seeking justice abroad for crimes within Nigeria, a group of villagers from the Niger
Delta has taken oil behemoth Royal Dutch Shell to court in the Netherlands over alleged environmental pollution and “corporate crimes”.

Nigeria, the leading oil producer in Africa and eighth largest in the world, has most of its oil deposits located in the wetland and mangrove region of the Niger Delta. Decades of oil extraction have left much of the region’s vegetation, farmlands, fishponds and drinking water polluted, and contributed to the impoverishment of much of its local population.

Environmental pollution is typically the result of oil spills caused by poor maintenance of pipelines and facilities, failure to clean up leaks, sabotage of oil installations and oil theft. Blame for this is generally laid at the doorstep the multinational oil companies operating in the area.

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) documenting pollution in the delta indicted Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), the biggest oil and gas company in Nigeria, for the oil spills which are often referred to as the world's largest. This environmental pollution, greater in volume and intensity than the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, will require the world’s most extensive oil cleanup, estimated to require up to 30 years.

Shell’s spills

These oil spills have devastated communities, destroyed livelihoods, and endangered the health of local populations and the ecosystem. This damage led some victims, most of whom have hardly partaken of the spoils of Nigeria’s immense oil wealth, to seek justice within the Nigerian legal system. This proved futile.

Following this, therefore, four villagers along with the NGO Friends of the Earth took Shell’s parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, to court in its home country of the Netherlands, on charges of polluting land and waterways around their home.

The verdict on the case will be delivered in The Hague in early 2013. The case is linked to a number of spills that occurred between 2004 and 2007 in Goi Ogoniland, Oruma in Bayelsa State and in Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom state. It is worth noting that Shell is also engaged in other Nigerian legal battles abroad, namely in the United States, over its alleged complicity in human rights abuses and extra-judicial executions of Ogoni activists in 1995 by Nigeria’s former military leader, the late General Sani Abacha.

Multinationals operating in developing countries have been routinely accused of flouting rules and conveniently ignoring international standards. This ranges from underage labour in sweatshops to carelessness in operations and use of substandard equipment. The outcome of the Shell delta case will certainly set a precedent for communities around the world with grievances against multinationals.

Just desserts?

Shell has responded defensively by highlighting the constraints they face in adhering to international standards, citing host governments’ bureaucratic fragmentation and corruption, poor record of rule enforcement, weak infrastructure, and pervasive criminality. Shell insists that “more than 75% of all oil spill incidents and more than 70% of all oil spilled from SPDC facilities in the Niger Delta between 2006 and 2010 were caused by sabotage, theft and illegal refining”. The rampancy of oil theft (or ‘bunkering’) was confirmed recently by Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo Iweala when she admitted that over 150,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen daily from Nigeria.

The prosecution of Shell could potentially be instrumental in raising awareness of the activities of multinational companies, leading to increased pressure for greater regulations amongst home citizens. Whereas cases against multinationals in host countries typically have limited impact, cases filed in companies’ home countries could succeed in creating interest among NGOs and rights lobby groups, most of which have effective media and advocacy strategies to campaign for greater transparency and accountability in the operations of multinationals abroad.

The advocacy by civil society organisations such as the Centre for Global Development led to the implementation of sections of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill in the US earlier this year, requiring US-listed multinational extractive firms to disclose the payments they make to host governments to improve corporate and government transparency.

Can Nigeria cope?

Beneath this though lies the more fundamental question of what such cases mean for the Nigerian legal system. Is the trying of multinational countries in their home countries a damning indictment of the Nigerian judiciary and a reflection of growing disillusionment with its ability to dispense justice in high-profile litigations? A question especially pertinent as the plaintiffs of this lawsuit in the Netherlands blame “endemic corruption” for the lack of legal action against Shell in Nigeria.

Indeed, the case is reminiscent of the trial and conviction of James Ibori, former governor of the oil-rich Delta state, for laundering $77 million stolen from state reserves by a London court after his acquittal by a Nigerian court on similar charges. Such cases do little for the image of the Nigerian legal system.

Thus, many are increasingly questioning the ability of the Nigerian judicial system to dispense justice beyond the petty criminals and towards “big men” and well-connected corporations. The fact that multinationals like Shell wield considerable fiscal and political muscle with influence reaching into the highest echelons of government ministries and agencies, as revealed by Wikileaks cables on Nigeria, has led to the widespread belief that powerful corporations, like politicians, can easily buy their way out of justice.

Ultimately, the verdict to be delivered early next year will determine if pursuing legal action against Shell abroad was simply a futile and desperate effort by aggrieved Nigerians unable to find justice elsewhere. If successful, it might just turn out to be another instance of Nigerians getting the justice they could not find at home. And the ripples may be felt far and wide.

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