A Dutch court has said it has jurisdiction over a case of alleged oil spills brought against Royal Dutch Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth, a court spokeswoman told ANP-Reuters.
“The court has decided that it is competent, so we will be handling the case,” said the spokeswoman.
“The facts are connected and for reasons of efficiency the cases against Shell and Shell Nigeria will be handled jointly.”
This case, brought by four Nigerian victims of Shell oil spills from three Nigerian villages, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, began on December 3, 2009, in the court at The Hague.
This is the first time in history that a Dutch company has been brought to trial before a Dutch court for damages abroad.
The four farmers and fishermen who lost their livelihoods after oil leaking from Shell pipelines spilled over their fields and fishing ponds, are claiming compensation.
Reports contained in “remember saro-wiwa” website indicate that the victims subpoenaed both Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria and Shell’s Dutch headquarters, alleging that as “the result of the company’s negligence, agricultural lands have been devastated, drinking water polluted, fish ponds made unusable and the environment and health of local people harmed”.
Shell denied all responsibility and insisted that the Dutch court has no jurisdiction over its Nigerian subsidiary.
At a hearing at The Hague earlier this month, Shell disputed the court’s jurisdiction to entertain the case and argued that such a case should be handled by a Nigerian court.
The oil major also said it could not be held accountable for the oil leaks as they were caused by sabotage.
At Shell’s request, the court had to address the issue of jurisdiction first by ruling on whether Shell Nigeria can be called to account before the Dutch court, before considering whether Shell parent company is liable for the pollution in Nigeria.
However, with yesterday’s court ruling that it has jurisdiction, the issue of whether Shell Nigeria can be called to account before the Dutch court has been laid to rest.
The court said that in order to handle the case properly, both Shell and its Nigerian unit should be heard.
It also said that “it is not unusual” in the Dutch jurisprudence to rule on events that happened outside the Netherlands.
Shell said it was disappointed with the court’s ruling.
“We are disappointed by the court ruling,” a Shell spokesman told Dow Jones Newswires.
“There are good arguments on which the court could have concluded it lacks jurisdiction. This [case] is a pure Nigerian matter,” he added.
The trial will continue in February 2010.
According to the court spokeswoman, Shell will be able to enter a statement of reply to the claims on February 10.
But Friends of the Earth Netherlands expressed delight at the ruling.
“Now we can start the real lawsuit about whether Shell is responsible and how much they have to do to compensate the damage,” a spokeswoman for the environmental group said.
Speaking on behalf of the victims in Nigeria, Chima Williams, Counsel of Enviro-nmental Rights Action (ERA), was quoted by “remember saro-wiwa” website as saying that: “These people have tried in many ways to get Shell to clean up the mess, but they have got nowhere. Now, as a last resort, they are trying to obtain justice in the Netherlands.”
The ruling which could set a legal precedent for multinationals in the Netherlands, is “an initial victory for all Nigerians that have been fighting for years for a cleaner habitat and justice”, Friends of the Earth Netherlands said in a statement.
The case was also a matter of principle for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
“In many countries, including Nigeria, the legal system is inadequate, and it is thus crucial that a company can also be brought to trial elsewhere,” the environmentalist group said.
Read a related story about the case in the Guardian.
Source: Ejiofor Alike, This Day, 31 Dec 2009
Watch the Friends of the Earth Netherlands video “The people of Nigeria versus Shell”