The UK Supreme Court has ruled that oil-polluted Nigerian communities can sue Shell in English courts.
The decision is a victory for the communities after a five-year battle, and overturned the ruling of the Court of Appeal.
The Niger Delta communities of more than 40,000 people say decades of pollution have severely affected their lives, health, and local environment.
The oil giant said it was merely a holding company for a company that should be judged under Nigerian law.
Shell described the legal ruling as disappointing.
What does the referee say?
The Supreme Court, the final court of appeal for civil cases in the United Kingdom, has ruled that cases brought by the Bell Community and the Ogali People of Ogoniland against Royal Dutch Shell are moot and may proceed in English courts.
Royal Dutch Shell has not argued that the contamination has occurred, but has argued that it cannot be held legally responsible for its Nigerian subsidiary. Shell is responsible for about 50% of the oil production in the delta.
Last year the appeals court agreed with the company, but the Supreme Court said on Friday that the decision was flawed.
Communities, represented by law firm Lee Day, have argued that Shell owes it to a common-law duty to care for individuals who have suffered severe harm as a result of the public health, safety and environmental failure of one of its overseas subsidiaries.
New hope for justice
Issac Khaled, BBC News, Lagos
Pollution of the Niger Delta continued despite years of promises by successive governments in Nigeria to clean it up. In 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari launched an ambitious clean-up operation in Ogoniland. Work continues, but residents say little progress has been made.
The continued oil spill from the activities of multinational companies also raised doubts about the impact of the clean-up operation. “It’s getting worse day by day,” Celestine Akboubari, an environmental activist from Ogoni, told the BBC.
The region provides most of the Nigerian government’s revenue, but societies say successive governments have neglected it. People could no longer hunt or farm because of the devastation, Akbubari says. “People are dying, there are strange diseases and women are getting miscarriages” from pollution, he says. But communities and activists say the court’s recent victory gives them hope that they will do justice.
How bad is the pollution?
In 2011, the United Nations concluded it would take 30 years to remove the massive amounts of pollution in the Niger Delta.
The Ogale community of about 40,000 people consists of fishermen or farmers who depend on the waterways of Ogoniland. But pollution has devastated hunting, turning their fertile homes into a toxic wasteland.
There have been at least 40 oil spills from Shell pipelines since 1989. Lawyers say Shell’s records are being exposed.
United Nations scientists have discovered a layer of 8 cm (3 inches) of refined oil floating on the surface of the water That supplies drinking wells to the community – much higher than what is permitted by law.
The water is now too dirty for people to drink. Despite promises to provide clean water, people often have to either shell out bottled water or drink from contaminated sources.
Dense crusts of ash and tar cover the ground, where an oil spill has caused fires. It is almost impossible to grow new plants to replace burnt crops or plants.
Farmer Damiti Sanibe describes a wasteland where trees and mangroves have been destroyed.
“The habitat is gone, the river we used to swim in is gone. For a coastal community whose life revolves around water, everything is gone.”
“I don’t think money can return what we lost. Even if they want to revive the mangroves, it will take more than 30 years and it’s a long time.”
Lee Day’s lawyer, Daniel Leader, said on Friday that the ruling was a “turning point” for “poor communities seeking to hold powerful corporations accountable.” The company said that the amount of compensation required has yet to be determined.
What does Shell say?
“The spills have occurred in communities that have been severely affected by oil theft, illegal oil refining and pipeline sabotage,” Shell said in a statement.
She said that despite the causes of the contamination, the subsidiary has worked hard to clean up and prevent spills.
It is the latest in a series of international and domestic legal litigation over oil extraction for Shell in Nigeria.
In 2015, it accepted responsibility for two spills and She agreed to pay 55 million pounds ($ 76 million) to the Budo community And help with cleaning.
In 2006 a Nigerian court ordered the company and its partners to pay $ 1.5 billion to the Ijaw people in Bayelsa state due to environmental degradation in the area.
In an ongoing civilian case, the widows of four environmental activists executed by the Nigerian military regime in 1995 are suing Shell for allegedly providing support to the military. Shell denies the allegations.
Friday’s decision is the latest case to test whether multinational companies can be held responsible for the actions of overseas subsidiaries.
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling. The battle is not yet won, Mark Dumet, Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Program, said, but added: “This landmark ruling could end a long chapter of impunity for Shell and other multinationals that commit human rights abuses abroad.”
Lee Dai also represented 2,500 Zambian villagers in the pollution lawsuit against the UK-based mining giant Vedanta Resources. Last month the Supreme Court They ruled in their favor and won an undisclosed settlement.