2020 could be Shell’s year of reckoning

In 2020 Shell will face unprecedented legal scrutiny over decades of human rights abuses in Nigeria, Amnesty International said today, as the oil giant braces itself for conclusions in a string of European court battles. Allegations range from complicity in unlawful executions to systemic pollution and environmental damage in the Niger Delta.

Amnesty International has been researching Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta for more than 20 years, compiling  of the company’s role in human rights abuses. In a report released today, the organization highlights the various cases that are finally putting Shell’s harmful operations in Nigeria on trial.

Shell began the year with another attempt to greenwash its role in the climate crisis, trying to present itself as the future of energy even as the planet burns

“Shell  the year with another attempt to greenwash its role in the climate crisis, trying to present itself as the future of energy even as the planet burns. This expensive PR effort must not divert attention from the fact that Shell is facing a year of unprecedented legal scrutiny over its business in Nigeria,” said Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s Head of Business, Security and Human Rights.

“Shell’s business model has allowed it to benefit from weaknesses in Nigeria’s justice and regulatory systems, wreaking havoc on Nigerian lives and livelihoods while profits continue to flow to its European headquarters. A just transition to clean energy also means holding polluters to account for the harm they have caused in the past.”

For the new report, Amnesty researchers interviewed people from several Niger Delta communities about the ongoing impact of pollution and oil spills.

King Okpabi, customary ruler of the Ogale community, expressed a widely-held frustration at Shell’s failure to take responsibility for its actions:

“Shell spoiled our water and destroyed our livelihoods. It is now spending millions to protect itself and tell the world that it has no responsibilities towards the people of Ogale, rather than addressing the wrong it did to us.”

The claims against Shell

Due to the difficulties of bringing legal claims in Nigeria, individuals and communities affected by Shell’s operations in Nigeria are bringing cases in the Netherlands and the UK where Shell is headquartered. These could set important precedents for holding polluting multinationals to account in future.

Kiobel v Shell: In the first of this year’s legal milestones, in March a court in The Hague will hear witness statements in a case brought by four women who accuse Shell of complicity in the unlawful arrest, detention and execution of their husbands by the Nigerian military in 1995. The women are claiming compensation and a public apology from Shell. The executions were the culmination of a brutal campaign by Nigeria’s military to silence protests against Shell’s pollution.

Four Farmers Cases: In May 2020, a final hearing is expected in a case brought against Shell by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth in 2008. They are seeking compensation from both Netherlands and UK-based Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) and its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), for alleged damage to fish ponds and land caused by oil spills.

This case is the first time that any Dutch company had been sued in a Dutch court for the operations of its subsidiaries overseas.

Okpabi and Others: In June 2020, the UK’s Supreme Court will hear an appeal brought against RDS and SPDC by two Niger Delta communities, Ogale and Bille. They claim that over several years they have suffered systematic and ongoing oil pollution because of Shell’s operations. The court will decide whether it can proceed on the critical issue of whether RDS is liable for the actions of SPDC.

This case is illustrative of the way that Shell’s corporate structure has shielded it from scrutiny and justice.

Shell claims that RDS is not responsible for the actions of its subsidiary even though it owns 100 percent of SPDC and receives the profits that it makes.

Mark Dummett

“Shell’s activities in Ogale have poisoned water and brought farming to a halt, but jurisdictional wrangling over whether RDS or SPDC is responsible for this damage means that Shell has never had to answer for this in a UK or Dutch court,” said Mark Dummett.

“Shell claims that RDS is not responsible for the actions of its subsidiary even though it owns 100 percent of SPDC and receives the profits that it makes."

Bodo: In 2008 there were two massive oil spills, caused by poorly maintained Shell pipelines, in a creek close to the Bodo community. Crude oil continuously leaked into the water for five weeks on each occasion. Shell settled with the community in 2014 but has yet to clean up Bodo’s devastated waterways. If the pollution is not cleared by mid-2020, the case will be referred back to the UK High Court.

Pastor Christian Kpandei, one of the community’s most vocal activists, says he lost everything when the oil spills killed the fish in his ponds. He told Amnesty: “The lack of clean-up has deeply affected us. The soil, the water and the air are all still contaminated.”

States are also scrutinising Shell’s operations.

The “OPL 245” bribery case: Prosecutors in Italy are bringing a criminal case over the alleged involvement of Shell, and the Italian oil multinational Eni, in a 1.3 billion US dollar bribery scheme connected to the transfer of a Nigerian oil licence. If found guilty, the individual defendants could go to jail.

Shell denies all claims.

Shell has failed to fulfil its human rights responsibilities in some truly horrifying ways

“It shouldn’t require legal action to get Shell to fulfil its human rights responsibilities. Shell has an obligation to respect the human rights of people in the Niger Delta, including by taking all reasonable steps to prevent spills and then remediate contaminated land and water,” said Mark Dummett.

“It has consistently, over many decades and in some truly horrifying ways, failed to do this.”

Amnesty is calling on Shell to improve its operational practices in the Niger Delta, at a time when the role of Shell and other fossil fuel companies in the climate crisis is coming under increasing scrutiny.

Data from Shell’s own spill incident reports reveal that from 2011-18 the company reported 1,010 spills along the network of pipelines and wells that it operates in Nigeria. Spills have a variety of causes – from third-party tampering, to operational faults and corrosion of aged facilities.

Shell blames most spills on theft and pipeline sabotage. But  by Amnesty and its partner organization the Centre for the Environment Human Rights and Development shows that the company’s facts and figures emerge from a flawed process for identifying the volume, cause and impact of oil spills. The research also shows that this process often lacks both independence and oversight, partly because the government regulators are so weak. As a result, Shell’s findings cannot be trusted.