UK Supreme Court permits Nigerian suits against Shell

[By Sopuruchi Onwuka, with agency reports]

Aglo-Dutch oil major, Shell, which has been indicted by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) for irresponsible operations that deeply impacted Niger Delta environment in Nigeria, will now face more reliable justice system in Britain.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a group of Nigerian farmers and fishermen can sue Royal Dutch Shell PLC in English courts over pollution in a region where the multinational oil major has a subsidiary.

The British ruling comes two weeks after a Dutch appeals court ordered Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary to compensate farmers in two villages for damage to their land caused by leaks in 2004 and 2005.

More than 40,000 members of Nigeria’s Ogale and Bille communities took Shell to court in Britain in 2015, alleging that decades of oil spills have fouled the water, contaminated the soil and destroyed the lives of thousands of people in the Niger River Delta, where a Shell subsidiary has operated for decades.

The Oracle Today reports that Shell has traditionally pushed back legal actions by local host communities which have borne the brunt of the company’s operations footprints in the Niger Delta.  The company which remains one of the remaining symbols of British colonial resource exploitation in the country has operated in the Niger Delta since 1950s, inflicting misery and devastation on its host communities whose environment has remained in ruins.

With the facility of British colonial administration, Shell had acquired vast onshore, swamp and shallow water oil blocks in the country from where it produces the bulk of crude oil, condensate and natural gas under operating agreements and partnerships that afford the nation’s political leaders huge revenues.

The role of the company in funding government’s budgets had conferred Shell with overwhelming privileges and influence in the nation’s political administration and makes it difficult for local host communities to protest the company’s mindless pollution of the environment in the areas.

Shell is alleged to have pushed the former military dictator, General Sani Abacha, to execute nine Ogoni community leaders including erudite playwright, late ken Saro-Wiwa, who championed protests against environmental degradation associated with the company’s operations in the Niger Delta.

Protests against Shell’s footprint on Niger Delta environment has remained a global reference for environmental rascality and led to protracted community agitations that have evolved into armed militancy and facility sabotage affecting industry infrastructure in the region.

The protests, sabotage and militancy vented frustration of then local communities which found it almost impossible to get justice against Shell in Nigeria where most government appointees, industry regulators and ministers are sponsored by the company to provide it shield in the nation’s corrupt political system.

The situation has led most activists in the Niger Delta to seek justice outside the shores of the country, especially in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands where the company has significant global administrative bases.

In most cases where the demand of the litigants stand straight in the course of justice, Shell had advanced technicalities of jurisdiction against claims from Nigeria local communities to evade judgment. Contests over the rights of local communities to bring up cases against the company outside Nigeria formed the subject of the appeals that dragged to the British Supreme court which was decided on Thursday.

Secondary reports monitored by The Oracle Today have it that five justices on the U.K.’s top court said Shell may owe a “duty of care” to the claimants over the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary. The judgment came against Shell’s argument that it was not responsible.

The community litigants had brought the lawsuit in London, Shell’s home base, following loss of confidence in Nigerian courts which rarely awarded judgments against government and its partners.

Shell argued that the U.K. courts had no jurisdiction to hear the case.

Britain’s High Court ruled in 2017 that the parent company was not legally responsible and the claim against its subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Co. of Nigeria, should therefore not be heard in the U.K. courts.

The Court of Appeal agreed and the claimants appealed to the U.K.’s top court for a final decision.

In its ruling Friday, the Supreme Court said “the Court of Appeal materially erred in law” when it ruled against the Nigerian claimants. It said the appellants’ case had “a real prospect of success.”

The long-running case has been closely watched for its implications about whether large corporations can be sued in London for activities of foreign subsidiaries.

Daniel Leader of London law firm Leigh Day, who represents the claimants, said the judgment “gives real hope to the people of Ogale and Bille who have been asking Shell to clean up their oil for years.”

“But it also represents a watershed moment in the accountability of multinational companies,” he said. “Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so.”

Shell discovered and started exploiting Nigeria’s vast oil reserves in the late 1950s and has faced heavy criticism from activists and local communities over spills and for the company’s close ties to government security forces.

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