It’s big news. For the first time, Shell has been found guilty in a court outside of the country in which it inflicted damage; in this case, in a court in the Hague for an oil spill in Nigeria. Shell will be forced to pay compensation to a farmer whose land and livelihood was ruined by the spill. This might seem a small step and a long time coming but it is very significant because it could open the floodgates to similar cases and bodes well for cases against Shell in the US Supreme Court and UK High Court for crimes committed in Nigeria. The cost to Shell is incalculable and should be enough to rattle investors and may even force change at the highest levels of the company. As Andy Rowell pointed out in his blog for Oil Change International, “this is the first time a multinational has been held accountable for the actions of its subsidiaries in its home nation.”
This is truly a David vs Goliath moment. Congratulations should go out to Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Netherlands who supported this case and to the farmers that had the courage to stand up to Shell. This win cannot right all the wrongs that Shell has done in the Delta and amidst the sense of victory it’s important to remember that Shell are still operating in ways that seriously impact communities and ecosystems in the Niger Delta.
Nigeria-based Environmental Rights Action pointed out the environmental-racism inherent in companies like Shell operating to very different pollution standards in countries like the Netherlands vs Nigeria.
While we commend the Dutch court ruling, it is now time the western countries pass laws compelling companies to enforce the same environmental responsibility standards abroad as at home. Shell’s arguments in the face of incontrovertible evidence has again shown the double standards of the oil companies in treating spills incidents in Nigeria differently from their pollution in Europe or North America. We are still optimistic that this landmark judgment will instigate more communities to seek justice.
Shell has tried to claim that its ‘issues’ in Nigeria are a thing of the past, but John Vidal wrote in the Guardian yesterday that in his trip last week to the Delta, people were telling him that if anything, the pollution was getting worse. One person told him:
Spills in the US are responded to in minutes; in the Niger delta, which suffers more pollution each year than the Gulf of Mexico, it can take companies weeks or more.
An interesting aside to this is the way that this was reported on the BBC – the initial headline on the article of Shell ‘partly blamed’ for damage was very quickly changed to Shell in Nigeria: Court acquits firm on most charges and Shell not culpable over spills, presumably after Shell’s lawyers making some phone calls to the right people high up the BBC food chain. It’s an incredibly political act of headline editing when you think that the ruling in favour of one of the farmers represents a historical legal precedent, but what the BBC headlines is that Shell are largely in the clear.
But today reminds us that with people power we can win even when the odd are stacked against us. Shell guilty…keeping saying it and believing it.
I wanted to add a postscript today as there has been so much conflicting media coverage of the verdict since writing this post. I think that this is mostly because Shell has been successful in using the complexity of the legal situation to dominate the media narrative. It is true that only one of the cases brought forward was successful and that the parent company Shell was not found liable in this case but its subsidiary The Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd of which the parent company owns 100% of its shares. However, when you consider the odds stacked against the Nigerian farmers and the fact that this is the first successful case of its kind it’s difficult to see this as anything other than a victory and the first of many. The tide is indeed turning.