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Dutch Court Rules Against Shell for damages in Nigeria

The ruling by a Dutch court on January 30, 2013 holding Shell responsible for the pollution of farmlands at Ikot Ada Udo (Nigeria) is a step towards environmental justice. However, the court also concluded that there was no proof that the spills at Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State and Oruma communities in Bayelsa State were not cleaned up. The plaintiffs from Goi and Oruma will appeal this ruling. And the court also dismissed all claims against the mother holding Shell, putting responsibility with the Nigerian subsidiary. But 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.”

ERA/FoEN in a statement issued in Lagos called the ruling a landmark judgment and a key victory setting a precedent for global environmental accountability that parent companies, often based in Europe or the United States, can be held accountable for environmental infractions committed by their subsidiaries anywhere in the world.

Channa Samkalden, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Nigerian farmers, said:  “Overall it’s actually quite a good outcome for us. At least Shell was held liable for one of the cases. That’s a good start. Also, a very important fact is that the court has said that Shell has a duty to take measures to prevent sabotage.”

In the suit, four farmers, supported by Friends of the Earth, dragged Shell to the Dutch court thousands of miles away from their communities in Nigeria, where Shell’s defective pipelines caused damage to their fishponds and farmlands in 2004, 2005 and 2008 respectively. Shell has consistently denied responsibility. It refused to clean-up the spill and did not pay compensation.

The case, which has the Dutch environmental justice organization Milieudefensie as co-Plaintiff, was filed in 2008 and had passed through lots of legal hurdles ostensibly set up by Shell before getting to this point of judgment. While Royal Dutch Shell Plc had maintained that it could not be held responsible for the actions of its subsidiary in Nigeria, the subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria Ltd had insisted that it cannot be tried by the court in the Hague for problems arising from Nigeria.  But the Dutch judiciary in 2009 declared itself competent to try the case. Last October, the Dutch court had a full trial of the case whereupon the judgment of today declaring that Shell Nigeria broke the law by not repairing leaks that destroyed the lands of the four farmers is based on.

“Finding Shell guilty of the spill at Ikot Ada Udo is commendable. Their disdain for the wellbeing of communities that suffer the impacts of its reckless exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta has been legendary. The spill at Ikot Ada Udo lasted for months and in open farmland and yet Shell had the temerity to fight to avoid culpability. It is just and fair that it is held accountable for this crime,” said ERA/FoEN Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey.

“This win for the farmers of Ikot Ada Udo has set a precedent as it will be an important step that multinationals can more easily be made answerable for the damage they do in developing countries. We anticipate other communities will now demand that Shell pay for the assault on their environment”.

Until now it’s been very problematic to bring cases against these companies in their home countries, because of the difficulties in application of their national legislation to incidents occuring beyond their shores. ERA/FoEN Director, Programmes and Administration, Godwin Uyi Ojo added that “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.”

Meanwhile, the Mother holding Shell has expressed satisfaction on the ruling, because the court concluded that in four out of five cases sabotage was the cause of the spill. Milieudefensie will appeal.