Today’s ruling that Shell can be brought to court in the UK for the actions of its subsidiary sets an important precedent in holding international oil companies to account for environmental destruction in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. A similar precedent has also recently been set in the Dutch courts, this time with the case already having been heard and the ruling going against Shell.
Why can’t Nigerian citizens access justice in Nigeria?
Accessing justice in the Nigerian courts is an extremely lengthy and difficult process, and one in which the balance is tipped in favour of the party with the most resources to support its case. Provisions for compensation are also deeply flawed. While we would like to see Nigeria able to provide justice for its own citizens, for now, being able to seek justice outside of Nigeria is a crucial way to hold international companies to account.
The impact of oil spills and need for compensation
The consequences of oil spills in the Niger Delta are dire. Many people in the region rely on subsistence and land/water based livelihoods which can be made impossible as a result of nearby oil spills. A lack of development in the region leaves little in the way of livelihood alternatives too. One study estimates that children are twice as likely to die in their first month of life if their mother lived near an oil spill before conception. And yet decades of historic oil spill pollution have not been cleaned-up and oil spills continue to take place on a daily basis. Access to proper compensation is essential to rebuild lives, access new livelihoods, and obtain healthcare.
It seems likely that Shell will argue that the oil spills in question in the UK’s court case are the result of third party theft or sabotage – as it did in the Dutch case. There can be no doubt of the scale and seriousness of the problem of oil theft and resulting spills in the Niger Delta and the urgent need to find effective solutions to the problem. But even where spills are caused by third parties, it is hard to disentangle responsibility for these spills. Oil companies cannot simply disown their responsibility to effectively protect their own infrastructure and prevent spills, and reports suggest oil company employees may well be complicit.
Cleaning up oil spills
Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming UK case, while compensation is an important component of seeking justice, the major challenge will remain the clean-up of oil spill pollution. Even where provisions have been put in place for the clean-up of historic oil spill pollution, such as the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project in Ogoniland, these initiatives have encountered years of delays. This will require companies to step up to fulfil their responsibilities; stronger government legislation, regulation and enforcement; reforms to the justice system; and for communities and civil society to play a role in acting collectively to ensure the current momentum created by these recent court cases translates into change for communities across the Niger Delta.