The price of oil: Shell in the Niger Delta

Article 7 Oct 2011 admin

This blog first appeared on the Greenpeace UK blog on 7 October 2011.

This time last year I was standing in a vast pool of oily water. It used to be a fish pond for local villagers, but now everywhere was coated with oil and the stench of petroleum was overpowering. A light rain was falling.

We were in Ikarama, a village that has been at the heart of Shell’s vast operations in the Niger Delta for decades. An oil spill from Shell’s Okordia manifold had occurred several months earlier, contaminating the local environment. Evidently the spill had not been cleaned up. Instead, the company had scooped and dumped the oil in the bushes on the other side of the road. In August 2011, Ikarama suffered 12 oil spills as Shell lost control over a key pipeline.

Ikarama is a microcosm of a much wider problem. As the UN confirmed recently, Shell’s oil spills have created a disaster that could take 30 years to clean up, and it is common for Shell to cover up heavily polluted sites rather than remediate them.

I had come to the Niger Delta to investigate Shell’s role in recent human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces and other armed groups. I found that Shell not only relied on government forces who systematically abused human rights, they also paid lucrative contracts to groups linked to armed militia. Shell admitted that from 2006 onwards, the company paid thousands of dollars every month to armed militants in the town of Rumuekpe, in the full knowledge that the money was used to sustain three years of conflict that is estimated to have killed at least 60 people.

The killings and torture and the cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment I documented occurred in communities and towns that have already suffered decades of environmental devastation. Every community I visited bore the scars of Shell’s activities, from loss of livelihoods to loss of lives. I simply couldn’t escape the oil spills, gas flares and the hot stench of petroleum.

When I shared my research with the BBC, they said it was “startling”. But for those who have followed Shell and its partners in the Niger Delta over the past few years, none of the report’s findings should come as a surprise. There is a large body of evidence that implicates Shell in paying huge contracts to militants, militia, and any other armed groups responsible for human rights abuses. Platform’s report adds to the picture.

Shell’s system of community development and engagement are broken. Instead of building peace, Shell rewards violence. What is deeply shocking is that these practices are routine, and have been so throughout the worst years of a conflict that has claimed an estimated 1,000 lives a year.

Some might say, “Well, that’s awful. But how else do you expect an oil company to operate in a conflict zone like Nigeria?” The answer is: we don’t. We expect a company to “do no harm” and to respect human rights, wherever it operates. Is it more acceptable for Shell to be involved in human rights abuses in Nigeria than, say, in Canada? In a world where human rights are universal, the answer must be no.

The UN Framework for Business and Human Rights states that companies have a duty to avoid human rights violations regardless of challenging “external environments”. Under that framework, companies like Shell in Nigeria have a higher duty because of the higher risk.

But without a legally binding mechanism to address corporate human rights abuses, these kinds of tragedies will continue unchecked. We must press governments, shareholders and the public to hold Shell accountable for its human rights abuses. Campaigns can be just as effective as legal action in stirring up public outrage and winning change.

That change – such as breaking the link between Shell and armed groups, and a comprehensive clean up in the Niger Delta – will not come overnight. But the injustices must end someday.



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