Dutch court rejects bulk of Nigerian suit against Shell
A Dutch court on Wednesday rejected a bid by Nigerian farmers to hold Shell's parent company responsible for oil damage to their villages, saying that only the Anglo-Dutch oil giant's Nigerian subsidiary was partly responsible.
Both sides claimed victory in a case that pressure groups had hoped would set a precedent for global corporate responsibility.
Environmentalists hailed the first ruling by a Dutch court on the responsibility of a subsidiary of a Dutch company for its actions abroad, while Shell said it was pleased its parent company had been cleared.
The court "dismissed all claims against the parent companies... since pursuant to Nigerian law a parent company in principle is not obliged to prevent its subsidiaries from harming third parties abroad," judge Henk Wien said.
Four farmers and fishermen, backed by lobby group Friends of the Earth, first filed the case in 2008 against the Netherlands-based group in a court thousands of miles (kilometres) from their homes.
Wien said Shell's Nigerian subsidiary must pay damages to the farmers and fishermen in one claim relating to oil spills near the Niger Delta village of Ikot Ada Udo, where a deserted well was opened with a monkey wrench.
Friends of the Earth spokesman Geert Ritsema said the group would appeal.
"The court in principle said Shell is responsible to prevent sabotage," Ritsema said. "It has never happened that a Dutch court convicted a company for its operations abroad."
Four farmers from the villages of Goi, Ikot Ada Udo and Oruma wanted Shell to clean up the mess, repair and maintain defective pipelines to prevent further damage, and pay compensation.
"The court acknowledged that there has been interference and that Shell hasn't taken good care of its facilities," said Mene Eric Barizaa Dooh, the only plaintiff present in court.
"But, the court has not given a fair hearing (to the people from his village of Goi). The place is still badly contaminated. That is a very serious issue and leaves us with a perpetual problem."
The only victorious plaintiff, Friday Akpan, told AFP by telephone from Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta: "I am happy about the ruling... The pollution damaged my farmland, so their saying that I won in the case is not a surprise because it is true."
Akpan, a fish farmer with 12 children, said oil pollution caused his fish to die and that people were scared away by the "smell of dead fish."
Ledum Mitee, chairman of Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, hailed Akpan's victory.
"But the irony is that those poor farmers and fishermen had to travel to The Hague to get justice," he told AFP. "This is a sad commentary on the nation's (Nigeria's) justice system."
Shell welcomed the decision clearing the parent company of responsibility, meanwhile.
"We are very pleased by the ruling of the court today that both Shell and Shell Nigeria have been proven right in the sense that the parent company is neither liable nor responsible and that the damages and leaks have been caused by sabotage and theft," said vice president of environment Allard Castelein.
Environmental groups say multinationals have double standards in developing countries and regions such as Europe or North America. They want the Netherlands and other Western nations to pass laws forcing companies to enforce the same environmental responsibility standards abroad as at home.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the case showed "justice is possible but is extremely hard to achieve if you are taking on a massive multinational."
"Given the really serious difficulties of bringing these cases at all, the significance of todays ruling is that one plaintiff prevailed and will get damages."
Oil pollution has ravaged large swathes of the Niger Delta, situated in the southeast of the world's eighth-largest oil producer, which exports nearly two million barrels a day.
Shell is the biggest producer in the west African nation where it has been drilling for the last half-a-century.
The UN's environmental agency released a report in 2011, saying decades of oil pollution in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland region may require the world's biggest ever clean-up and could take up to 30 years.
© 2013 AFP