After 13 years of legal wrangling, the court of appeal in The Hague will rule on the matter this Friday morning. The case against parent company Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria (SPDC) was instituted in 2008 by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) and four Nigerian farmers.
The case is unique because it is the first time a Dutch company has been held liable together with its foreign subsidiary for the breach of its duty of care abroad.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerian plaintiffs hold Shell and SPDC individually responsible for the oil spills and the failure to clean up the pollution. The judge must decide whether Shell will be required to give the Nigerian plaintiffs financial compensation. The judge has also been asked to order Shell to clean up the pollution and prevent further spills.
Chima Williams of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action) said: “Today’s decisions will determine whether or not transnational companies will be obliged to respond in a swift and positive way when environmental complaints are made from their host country.
“This case has taken so long that two claimants are no longer alive. But the problems caused by the immense oil spill from Shell’s pipelines have still not been resolved after 13 years.
“It hurts that this can happen. The court has an opportunity today to set a new standard that will give hope to ordinary citizens that no matter how powerful a company is, there will always be a day of reckoning.”
Donald Pols of Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) eagerly awaits the verdict. He said with enthusiasm: “After almost 13 years, we will hear whether Nigerians will finally receive justice or whether Shell has succeeded in completely shirking its responsibility for the pollution.
“For the inhabitants of the Niger Delta, it is crucial that their land is cleaned up and their lost crops and livelihoods are compensated by the guilty party: Shell. A victory would herald the beginning of a new era in which large multinationals such as Shell can no longer go about their business lawlessly but are accountable for their entire operations, including overseas.”
Channa Samkalden, lawyer for the Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, adds: “What we have already achieved in all these years of litigation is that Dutch companies are being held accountable for their behaviour abroad. The fact that Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerian claimants succeeded in this is in itself groundbreaking. It is now a matter of waiting to see how the court rules on the liability of both parent company Shell (RDS) and the subsidiary in Nigeria (SPDC).”
Stronger international regulation needed
If the court rules that Shell is liable for the environmental pollution in Nigeria, this may have far-reaching consequences for the corporate accountability policy of Dutch multinationals.
According to Friends of the Earth Netherlands, however, the lengthy legal proceedings have shown that there is a worldwide need for better and clearer legislation and regulations for transnational corporations.
They believe that the Nigeria lawsuit has shown that when it comes to environmental pollution, a large company like Shell applies double standards since, in the Netherlands, such oil spills would never be accepted.
It is time, they noted, for a legally binding instrument to regulate transnational corporations with respect to human rights. European citizens can call upon the European Commission to enforce human rights and environmental due diligence.