By Andy Rowell
We hope that 2021 is the year we finally hold Shell accountable for delaying action on climate change — as well as its human rights abuses and environmental destruction in Nigeria.
Last month, we were given real hope in the decades-long fight against Shell for its refusal to act on climate and align its drilling and emissions to internationally agreed climate goals. The Dutch court ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% compared to 2019 levels within 10 years.
The legal case was brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with a staggering 17,000 co-plaintiffs. The Judge in the case, Larisa Alwin, ruled that the oil giant must “at once” reduce its CO2 output, adding that the case would have “far-reaching consequences” for Shell, maybe even curbing “the potential growth of the Shell group.”
Activists and lawyers were quick to laud the landmark ruling. Tessa Khan, an international human rights and climate crisis lawyer and campaigner, wrote that the “historic ruling has blown another hole in the defenses of an industry that has overwhelmingly failed to accept responsibility for driving the climate emergency.”
ClientEarth lawyer, Johnny White, added that “it’s no exaggeration to say this landmark verdict, which linked the need for the fossil fuel company to decarbonise to climate science and human rights, is a watershed moment for corporate climate accountability.”
Speaking last week, some two weeks after the ruling, Shell’s CEO, Ben van Beurden made contradictory statements. On the one hand, he said Shell would “rise to the challenge” outlined in the judgement and on the other he said that the oil giant would appeal the ruling.
“Imagine Shell decided to stop selling petrol and diesel today. This would certainly cut Shell’s carbon emissions. But it would not help the world one bit. Demand for fuel would not change. People would fill up their cars and delivery trucks at other service stations,” van Beurden said. “A court ordering one energy company to reduce its emissions – and the emissions of its customers – is not the answer,” he added.
In response, Mark van Baal, the founder of Follow This, a shareholder action group, told the Guardian that Van Beurden had “failed to have his epiphany moment, and still thinks that committing to the Paris agreement is an unfair ask.”
Shell’s strategy is once again reminiscent of the decades-long legal strategy first pioneered by the tobacco industry: Delay action time and time again. Fight lawsuits, lose, and appeal. Your pockets are deeper than your critics. Fight until you win. The collateral damage is that people die in the process.
Moreover, litigation is not the only thing that has needlessly dragged on. For Shell has history in the hall of shame. It is now over a quarter of a century since the Ogoni 9 were murdered in Nigeria.
The Ogoni 9 — Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel, and John Kpuine — were murdered for their campaign against Shell.
They had fought against rampant pollution, double standards, blatant colonialism, environmental racism mixed with collusion with the military made more noxious by the corporate arrogance of Shell. We have always said that Shell was guilty in the deaths of the Ogoni 9. A charge the company has always denied.
In the twenty six years that have followed, there has been unrelenting campaign to hold Shell accountable for its actions in the Niger Delta and for the deaths of the Ogoni 9.
Pause for a moment. For many, 1995 was a different era, when the internet was still in its infancy, long before everyone had mobile phones. It was the year that Microsoft launched its first operating system, Windows 95.
For those seeking justice, it is like everything has changed but at the same time nothing has changed. It is discombobulating. Time moves on, but it is also frozen. Two years ago, I wrote that “It is appalling that no one in those intervening years has been found guilty of the extra-judicial murder of Saro-Wiwa and the others.”
It is equally appalling that Shell has not tried to bring closure to the issue by admitting guilt, paying compensation, and adequately and promptly cleaning up its toxic mess and legacy in the Niger Delta, and in particular in Ogoni.
In 2002, the widow of one of the others, Esther Kiobel sued Shell in the USA, where she had been granted asylum. Over ten years later, the US Supreme Court ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over the case, meaning US courts never got to examine the facts of the case, either.
Five years ago, Esther Kiobel filed a new civil case against Shell in The Netherlands, supported by Amnesty International. The case was brought along with other widows: Victoria Bera, Blessing Eawo and Charity Levula. They demanded compensation and an apology from Shell.
In 2019, the District Court of The Hague heard from witnesses, including those who testified that they had been bribed by Shell to testify against Saro-Wiwa and the others. It has taken nearly a quarter of a century for the truth to finally come out.
Writing on the subject last year, I noted that “It did not have to be like this. Shell could have stopped this from day one. Esther and the others should not have to wait this long for justice. Whatever happens now will come too late for others too. Other great Nigerians who are part of this story — Claude Ake, Oronto Douglas and Ken Wiwa — to name just a few, will never see the day Shell is found guilty.”
The Dutch court is due to rule on the Kiobel case this year, delayed by COVID-19. We are hoping for a second landmark legal victory against the oil giant in months. In the meantime, the wait for justice continues.
Saro-Wiwa wrote in his closing testimony at the trial of the Ogoni 9 that: “I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial. Shell is here on trial and it is as well that it is represented by counsel said to be holding a watching brief. The Company has, indeed, ducked this particular trial, but its day will surely come … The crime of the Company’s dirty wars against the Ogoni people will also be punished.”
As we wait for the court’s judgement, we ask you to vote for Shell in Corporate Accountability’s Hall of Shame for denying justice in Nigeria for a generation and for delaying action on climate change. Please vote here.
And for anyone looking to read more on how Shell has shaped the politics and landscape of the UK and Niger Delta, there is a great new book out. To order and purchase, click here.