Nigerian communities’ oil pollution claims against Shell to go to trial

Some 50,000 claimants from the Ogale and Bille communities of the Niger Delta will have their day in the UK courts against Shell, after the Oil Major opted to proceed to trial in a case focused on catastrophic environmental destruction in southern Nigeria.

The trial will doubtless grab media attention after the recent landmark win against the company in the Netherlands and as Shell continues with its plans to exit Nigeria – leaving a trail of environmental devastation in its wake.  It will advance how UK common law interprets such international corporate accountability cases and, it’s to be hoped, ensure justice will finally be served to the Ogale and Bille communities

Shell’s decision to go to trial comes only a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that the case against Shell for alleged environmental degradation in the Niger Delta may be heard in the English courts.

The ruling overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal and High Court and reaffirmed its landmark decision in Lungowe v Vedanta, in so doing clarifying jurisprudence on the tort law duty of care

Leigh Day, the law firm representing the Nigerian communities seeking justice, argues that that parent company Shell UK must be held accountable for the actions taken by its subsidiary – because the global policies it put in place directly led to the damage suffered by Nigerian communities.

Local communities have long suffered from oil spills in the Niger Delta region – and have only been compensated for the damage caused to their livelihoods through action in the courts. Leigh Day argues that the oil leaks from pipelines and associated infrastructure operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd (SPDC) as part of a joint venture in the Niger Delta, are a result of negligence, and that parent company Royal Dutch Shell has breached its duty of care to local communities.

In the run-up to the Supreme Court win, Ogale tribal leader, King Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi, explained that access to safe water is now a struggle in his homeland. He wants Shell to lead a clean-up operation in the region.

“There are strange diseases in my community — skin diseases, people are dying sudden deaths, some people are impotent, low sperm count,” Okpabi told Agence France-Presse. “I can afford to buy water. But can I afford to buy for everybody? No.”

“Shell is Nigeria and Nigeria is Shell. You can never, never defeat Shell in a Nigerian court. The truth is that the Nigerian legal system is corrupt.”

Should a UK court rule against Shell at trial, it will be yet another defeat for the corporation, which earlier this year was ordered by a court in The Hague to go further to drastically reduce its climate emissions. The Dutch court found that Shell’s policies were inadequate to meet the requisite standard of care under Dutch law, and it ordered that the carbon emissions of the Shell group’s global activities be reduced by 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels.

By hiding behind its corporate structure Shell has evaded accountability for far too long.

UK corporations must be held accountable for human rights abuses and environmental damage caused by subsidiaries they control. Communities in the Global South must have access to justice and judicial remedy for the abuses they suffer at the hands of corporate giants. And this trial may be a key step forward in the long battle to end impunity for corporate human rights abuses around the world.

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