Amnesty Pushes for Criminal Liability for Shell’s Activities in the Niger Delta, Based on New Analysis of Court Documents

Last week, Amnesty International released a damning report examining the role played by Shell Oil in human rights violations against the Ogoni people in Nigeria. Amnesty’s analysis is based in part on the group’s years of work in the region, as well as a slew of Shell’s internal documents released through legal proceedings in the U.S.

 CAL has been collaborating with Brother Anthony Kote-Witah and other survivors of Shell's activities in the Ogonilands to explore new mechanisms for reparation. Brother Anthony and several others sued Shell in the United States in  Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum,  dismissed by the Supreme Court on jurisdictional grounds.

CAL has been collaborating with Brother Anthony Kote-Witah and other survivors of Shell's activities in the Ogonilands to explore new mechanisms for reparation. Brother Anthony and several others sued Shell in the United States in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, dismissed by the Supreme Court on jurisdictional grounds.

According to the report, the murder of the Ogoni Nine and the brutal campaign of the Nigerian military against the Ogoni people are irrefutably the fault of the Nigerian government, but are also closely connected to Shell Oil. Amnesty combined victim testimonies, Shell employee testimonies and Nigerian Militant testimonies in order to piece together a complete picture of what happened in Nigeria. The alarming findings led Amnesty to call for a criminal investigation against Shell and its connection to the Nigerian military.

The report outlines in detail the complicity between Shell and the Nigerian government. According to Brian Anderson, the chairperson of Shell Nigeria (1994-1997), “The Government and the oil industry are inextricably entangled” (Amnesty 6). Shell’s operations in Nigeria were extremely valuable to the government, employing 4,900 Nigerians as well as 25,000 sub- contracted employees, many of whom were Nigerian. In the 1990s, “Shell’s annual profits from oil production in Nigeria were $220- $240 million” (Amnesty 19). During this time, Ogoni protests began in response to the environmental impacts of Shell. Shell framed the Ogoni protests as an economic issue, even though there are documents which reveal that “senior staff were highly concerned about the poor state of Shell’s ageing and inadequately maintained leaky pipelines” (Amnesty 6).

These same leaky pipelines and other oil infrastructure continue to cut through the Ogoni region, causing ongoing contamination of the soil and water supply and disruption of the local ecosystem.

Not only was Shell aware of the environmental damage occurring, they were also fully aware of the human rights violations taking place at the hands of the Nigerian military. An internal memo, titled Security/ Community Disturbances, outlined a number of meetings that Shell managers held with senior government and security officials in May 1993. “During these meetings, Shell requested support from the security forces to protect installations from protestors in exchange for logistical help” (Amnesty 53).  Shell requested these services with full knowledge of the human rights violations previously perpetuated on Ogoni protesters by their government. Brian Anderson (Shell Nigeria chairperson) even had individual meetings with General Sani Abacha during the crisis. This relationship intrinsically ties shell and the Nigerian military together. The troubling facts exposed by Amnesty prove that Shell was aware of environmental and human rights abuses occurring in response to their oil extraction in the Niger Delta but did nothing to mitigate the harm. With these facts, Amnesty is encouraging the government of Nigeria and Shell’s home states to prosecute Shell and the individuals responsible for abuse of people in the Ogonilands. 

The ongoing harm to the Ogoni community is almost impossible to quantify. According to a 2011 UNEP report, it would take 30 years to remediate the environmental harm. This process has not begun. This harm has had dramatic impact on the Ogoni people's ability to survive: due to contaminated soil and fleeing fish populations, the region is now food insecure; access to clean drinking water is inadequate; the region's economy has been gutted; and a generation of Ogoni have been exposed to high levels of benzene, a know carcinogen, leading to widespread health problems.

The Ogoni have been diligent in pursuing claims against Shell, in hopes of beginning a process of recovery, but with little success. The case filed by a group of Ogoni survivors in the US, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, was dismissed by the US Supreme Court, setting a precedent that has greatly undermined the ability of victims of corporate abuse to bring claims in US court. The Ogoni have traveled the world in pursuit of reparation from Shell. They have engaged in legal processes in the UK, Nigeria, the Netherlands, the African Commission and before the OECD, but few have been compensated for the harms they suffered. For background on the Kiobel case, check out More Perfect's recent coverage.

This case is an extraordinary example of the way abuses committed by transnational corporations slip between legal systems, and deprive victims access to remedy. Criminal prosecution would be a step in the right direction, but communities like the Ogoni will also need resources to make their land livable and safe for the next generation.

Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and legal designer for Corporate Accountability Lab. Madison Kewin is a fall communications intern with Corporate Accountability Lab.