40,000 people from the Niger Delta take on Shell at the UK Supreme Court

This week the UK Supreme Court heard a landmark case against Shell brought by 40,000 people from the Ogale and Bille communities of the Niger Delta, in Nigeria.

The communities have come together to seek justice – first in the High Court and then the Court of Appeal, before arriving in the Supreme Court – after decades of oil spills destroyed the environment and devastated livelihoods in their homeland.

CORE and the ICJ intervened in the case  (Okpabi v. Shell) on the basis that Shell owes a duty of care to protect the communities from the actions of its subsidiary – the fundamental issue at the heart of the case.

What is the case about?

Lawyers representing the communities told the Court that parent company Shell UK must be held accountable for the actions taken by its subsidiary – because the global policies it put in place directly led to the damage suffered by Nigerian communities. They explained that Shell UK also demonstrated “top-down intervention” and “expertise”, both highly relevant to the damage that was caused.

This cuts to the core of the issue at the heart of the case: when does a parent company have responsibility for the actions taken – and damage caused – by its subsidiary?

Shell refuses to disclose documents central to the case. But evidence from whistleblowers – including former Shell staff members – reveal it held centralised control, including “mandatory rules” that must be followed by its subsidiaries. 

Lawyers say Shell must be held accountable for its “systemic failures”.

What is Shell saying?

Shell says that the documents show no real evidence that the “mandatory” policies constituted control – that they only provided “guidance”.

The company is content to make huge profits from its Nigerian operations, while distancing itself from any responsibility for the impacts these operations cause.

Instead – as Shell’s lawyer outlined – it claims the spills were caused by “uniquely Nigerian problems” of oil “theft”, “pilfering” and “pipeline sabotage” which, they say, should be dealt with by the Nigerian Government.

The communities’ lawyer responded that by blaming the issue on “criminality”, Shell deflects from the “callous disregard” it has shown for its own infrastructure and responsibility to clean up spills.

Why is this case significant?

This is a landmark case which directly builds on the Vedanta ruling from last year. If the Supreme Court rules against Shell, it could consolidate the principles from that ruling and lead to trial in the UK.

By hiding behind its corporate structure Shell evaded accountability for far too long.

UK corporations must be accountable for human rights and environmental damage caused by subsidiaries they control. And communities in the Global South and everywhere around the world must have justice for the abuses they suffer.