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Dutch court rejects Nigerians' suit against Shell

Four Nigerian farmers who were trying to hold Shell responsible for oil damage pictured in The Hague October 11, 2012
File picture taken on October 11, 2012 shows four Nigerian farmers (L-R) Alali Efanga, Friday Alfred Akpan-Ikot Ada Udo, Chief Fidelis A. Oguru Oruma and Eric Dooh in court in The Hague. The court on Wednesday rejected a bid by the farmers to hold Shell r

A Dutch court on Wednesday rejected a bid by Nigerian farmers to hold Shell responsible for oil damage to their villages, in a case that environmental groups had hoped would set a precedent for global corporate responsibility.

Instead, The Hague district court ruled that Anglo-Dutch Shell's parent company could not be held responsible for the pollution, as only subsidiary Shell Nigeria was responsible for one oil leak.

The court "dismissed all claims against the parent companies... since pursuant to Nigerian law a parent company in principle is not obliged to prevent its subsidiaries from harming third parties abroad," judge Henk Wien said.

The four farmers and fishermen, backed by lobby group Friends of the Earth, first filed the case in 2008 against the Netherlands-headquartered oil giant in a court thousands of miles (kilometres) from their homes.

Environmental groups had hoped the case would open the floodgates for hundreds of similar claims around the world.

Judge Wien said however that Shell's Nigerian subsidiary must pay damages to the farmers and fishermen in one of their claims, relating to oil spills near the Niger Delta village of Ikot Ada Udo.

"Shell Nigeria has been sentenced to pay damages in one of the cases. All claims in the other four proceedings have been dismissed," Wien said.

It was the first time a Dutch company was sued in the Netherlands over damage in another country, in this case oil pollution.

Spilled crude oil at B-Dere waterways in Ogoniland, Nigeria pictured in August 11, 2011
Spilled crude oil at B-Dere waterways in Ogoniland, Nigeria pictured in August 11, 2011.

The farmers wanted Royal Dutch Shell to clean up the mess, repair and maintain defective pipelines to prevent further damage, and pay out compensation.

Former Friends of the Earth International head Nnimmo Bassey told AFP by telephone from Abuja that the case had nevertheless set a precedent: "I can see many cases coming up."

"I think the fact that we succeeded in at least one of the cases is a major milestone because now Shell and other transnational corporations can be sure that they cannot pollute the environment anywhere in the world and run back and enjoy their profits back home," he said.

Bassey said multinationals had double standards in developing countries and regions such as Europe or North America, and in Shell's case: "They don't have a regard for the Nigerian environment and the Nigerian people."

Shell denies claims of double standards.

Environmentalists want the Netherlands, and other Western nations, to pass laws forcing companies to enforce the same environmental responsibility standards abroad as at home.

Mene Eric Barizaa Dooh, the only plaintiff present in court on Wednesday with the others in Port Harcourt in Nigeria, said his group would likely appeal.

In a landmark ruling, the Dutch judiciary in 2009 declared itself competent to try the case despite protests from Shell that its Nigerian subsidiary was solely legally responsible for any damage.

Oil pollution has ravaged large swathes of the Niger Delta, situated in the southeast of the world's eighth-largest oil producer, which exports nearly two million barrels a day.

Shell, the biggest producer in the west African nation where it has been drilling for the last half-a-century, denied responsibility.

The company pinned oil spills between 2004 and 2007 on illegal theft and sabotage.

Friends of the Earth however says the scale of Nigeria's oil pollution was twice that of the five million barrels dumped in the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, the biggest ever marine spill. Shell disputes the Nigerian figure and puts it much lower.

The UN's environmental agency released a landmark report in 2011, saying decades of oil pollution in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland region may require the world's biggest ever clean-up and could take up to 30 years.