A UK High Court yesterday ruled that two Niger Delta communities devastated by oil spills cannot pursue their case against Shell in the United Kingdom for oil spills that occurred in Nigeria.
The court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could not be held responsible for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC).
But in its reaction to the ruling, Amnesty International said it could rob the communities of justice and allow UK multinationals to commit abuses overseas with impunity.
“The Ogale and Bille communities have been hit by multiple Shell spills, threatening their health and drinking water. The UN found groundwater contamination in Ogale was more than 450 times the legal limit – when Amnesty investigators went back four years later, Shell still hadn’t cleaned up the pollution.
“This ruling could mean that the communities will never receive meaningful compensation, and that the oil spills will not be properly cleaned up,” said Campaigner on Business and Human Rights at Amnesty International, Joe Westby.
Westby stated that the ruling set an especially dangerous precedent, adding that if it stands, then the UK courts have given free rein to multinational companies based in the UK to abuse human rights overseas.
He argued that this was a deeply depressing reminder of the impunity enjoyed by powerful corporations, and a blow to other communities in the Niger Delta that are still awaiting justice.
“We hope and expect that the court of appeal will overturn this decision to show that the UK justice system will provide remedy to impoverished communities who suffer serious abuse caused by UK corporations,” Westby added.
Two Nigerian communities brought separate legal actions against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary in 2016.
The first claim was brought on behalf of 2,335 people from the Bille Kingdom, a fishing community whose environment has been devastated by oil spills over the past five years.
The second claim was on behalf of the Ogale Community in Ogoniland, which consists of around 40,000 people.
Shell had disputed the jurisdiction of the UK court, and argued that the case concerned Nigerian plaintiffs and a Nigerian company.
In his ruling, the judge struck out the claims against Royal Dutch Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary, but gave the communities permission to file an appeal.
Amnesty heavily criticised the ruling, saying that the judge’s decision was blatantly at odds with how multinationals like Shell work in today’s globalised world.
Amnesty also noted that communities affected by oil spills in Nigeria are usually forced to negotiate directly with the company and are at a huge disadvantage, which invariably means they are cheated.
Shell has always maintained that over 80 per cent of oil spills in its operations in the Niger Delta are caused by sabotage, while equipment failure and aging pipelines account for the balance, Amnesty said.
“For rural communities taking a claim to the Nigeria courts is extremely difficult because only federal courts can deal with oil cases and few lawyers are willing to take on the major oil companies.
“The rare cases that do make it to court languish for years in the Nigerian justice system with no resolution,” the rights group added.
In January 2015, a UK law firm won a landmark settlement agreement from Shell to pay £55 million to the Bodo community in Niger Delta after the case was brought to the UK court.
Shell had originally offered just £4,000 compensation.
In its comment on the ruling, however, Shell hailed the UK court’s decision, saying that “the court rightly decided these claims should be dealt with by the Nigerian courts and confirmed longstanding principles of corporate law, which are critically important for multinational companies headquartered in the UK”.
A statement yesterday by SPDC’s General Manager, External Relations, Igo Weli, added: “Both Bille and Ogale are areas heavily impacted by crude oil theft, pipeline sabotage and illegal refining, which remain the main sources of pollution across the Niger Delta.
“The judge correctly decided that the holding company, Royal Dutch Shell, had no legal responsibility for harm to the communities in the Niger Delta caused by criminal interference in Nigeria with the operations of a joint venture in which the Nigerian government owns a majority interest.
“We hope the strong message sent by the English court today ensures that any future claims by Nigerian communities concerning operations conducted in Nigeria will be heard in the proper local courts.
“Nigeria is a core part of the Shell Group’s upstream business. We see considerable potential for growth in Nigeria and are determined to help Nigeria unlock its energy potential over the long term.
“Litigation in courts unfamiliar with the law and realities on the ground ultimately does nothing to address the real problem in the Niger Delta: widespread pipeline sabotage, crude oil theft and illegal refining.
“SPDC continues to play an active role in the search for solutions to these complex issues.”
He said examples of recent initiatives undertake by Shell included a 2016 campaign against crude oil theft which highlighted the dangers of crude oil theft and sabotage of pipelines to more than 40 communities in Ogoniland and a programme which ran with the objective of providing alternative means of livelihood for young people in Ogoniland in 2014.
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