Inès Najeh / GICJ  

The oil industry, while a major driver of economic growth, often has severe negative impacts on both the environment and human rights. Extensive oil extraction operations can lead to significant environmental degradation, including soil and water contamination, air pollution, and destruction of ecosystems. These environmental harms directly affect the health and livelihoods of local communities. An example is the situation of the Ogoni people in Nigeria. The oil business in Ogoniland has led to widespread pollution and health crises, with the human rights of the Ogoni people being consistently violated. 

Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (SPDC) is the main subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria and operates a joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). SPDC is one of Nigeria’s largest oil and gas companies and has been a major player in the country's oil industry for decades. Indeed, Shell has been involved in multiple scandals in Nigeria concerning environmental rights and human rights violations. One of the most important cases involved Shell in the Niger Delta region, where the company caused oil spills. The Niger Delta is located in the southern part of Nigeria and is considered the largest river delta within the African continent. The region is where the country’s primary oil reserves are situated, and it is also where Ogoniland is. Oil exploration began in Ogoniland in the 1950s, and SPDC and the NNPC developed significant production infrastructure over the next thirty years. 

 SPDC was implemented in the southern region of Nigeria, more specifically in Ogoniland. It operated freely without any safety measures and disregarded standard procedures mainly due to the facilitation and encouragement of the national government. This aggressive expansion in the southern region of Nigeria, specifically in Ogoniland, led to both an environmental disaster and severe health consequences for the local Ogoni people.

The activities of the petrol company, including the disposition of toxic wastes into local waterways caused the contamination of the water, soil, and air. The once fertile lands and clean water sources used for essential living purposes such as farming or fishing have been heavily contaminated with oil spills and toxic wastes, resulting in widespread ecological damages. The destruction of these resources has not only crippled the local economy but has also led to a food crisis and malnutrition among the population. The contamination of water supplies has led to increased rates of cancer, respiratory issues, and other serious health problems. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, facing higher risks of birth defects and other health complications. 

Indeed, the destruction of the community’s food sources clearly shows that the Nigerian government, through the Shell company, explicitly violated the right for individuals to “enjoy the best attainable state of physical and mental health”(Article 16 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, 1981). And implicitly by disregarding the right to food, notably protected by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and inevitably the right to life protected by Article 4 of the African Charter. 

Shell is responsible for violating many human rights, notably among the Ogoni people, by causing irreversible environmental degradation and health problems resulting from the contamination of the environment. However, Nigeria cannot be exempted from responsibility in this case, as the government facilitated the extraction of resources. Under international human rights law and the African Charter, the Nigerian State has the obligation to respect all fundamental human rights. This includes the obligation to ensure that the resources of a collective group are respected, as these resources are essential for the group to satisfy its needs.[1] Second, the State must protect individuals from damaging acts perpetrated by other subjects, such as private parties. Finally, the government did not even involve the Ogoni community in the decision processes that affected their land, which is a violation of Nigeria's obligation to promote the enjoyment of human rights. 

This neglect has also fueled social unrest and conflict in the region, leading to protests and movements led by the Ogoni people. Most notably, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP, has sought to bring international attention to their plight and demand justice. However, these efforts have often been met with violent repression, further highlighting the disregard for the rights and well-being of the Ogoni people. Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the MOSOP played a significant role in advocating the rights of the environment and the Ogoni people and brought the attention of the international community to the grave effects of the oil industry in Nigeria. 

The activism of MOSOP, the increasing international attention, and the violence has led to Shell’s suspension of oil exploration and other activities in Ogoniland in 1993. However, the situation continued to intensify as more protests erupted, and the Nigerian military-ruled government responded with violence. The most tragic event occurred in 1995 when Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists, afterwards known as the Ogoni Nine, were executed following a highly controversial trial conducted by the Nigerian military tribunal. This act of repression sparked global outrage, leading to sanctions against Nigeria and increased scrutiny of Shell's activities worldwide.

Even though the immediate goals of MOSOP faced significant setbacks, the movement brought about a heightened awareness of the environmental and human rights abuses in the Niger Delta. Shell's reputation suffered considerably, leading to various trials, such as the Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell Co. in 1996. This case was filed in the United States (US) under the Alien Tort Statute (“giving non-US citizens the right to file suits in US court for international human rights violations”)[2], accusing Shell of complicity in human rights violations. The case was settled in 2009, with Shell agreeing to pay $15.5 million in compensation.

Although oil industry operations were suspended in Ogoniland in 1993, widespread environmental contamination remains. 

For this reason, in 2006, after democracy was established in Nigeria, the government asked the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assess the environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination in Ogoniland. According to the « polluter pays principle », a simple idea at the core of European Union environmental policy, those responsible for environmental damage should pay to cover the costs,[3] SPDC was responsible for the expenses related to the environmental assessment. The UNEP report presented alarming findings of extensive soil, groundwater and vegetation contamination due to decades of oil pollution. Even outdoor air is exposed to petroleum hydrocarbons, which exposes the Ogoni people to significant health risks. Moreover, according to the report, “the drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline”[4]. UNEP's recommendations included the establishment of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority to oversee a comprehensive cleanup process. The report also called for immediate actions such as providing clean drinking water through the work of a Technical Working Group on Water Supply, improving healthcare infrastructure, and ensuring effective environmental monitoring and enforcement to prevent further pollution. These recommendations aimed to restore the environment and improve the health and well-being of the Ogoni people.

The pollution and health damages in the Niger Delta persisted even after Shell's removal from Ogoniland and changes in government. Affected individuals continue to struggle against the major corporations. In 2008, farmers sought reparations for economic damages caused by contaminated land and waterways in a Dutch court. It was not until January 2023 that the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) was found responsible for oil leaks and ordered to pay 15 million euros to the affected communities in Nigeria, all the while denying its involvement. 

Geneva International Center for Justice (GICJ) strongly condemns the environmental and human rights abuses in Nigeria, particularly those stemming from the activities of multinational corporations like Shell, and calls for immediate and comprehensive measures to address and rectify these injustices. GICJ highlights that despite the suspension of operations in 1993, the devastating consequences of decades-long oil extraction persist, leaving the Ogoni people to suffer from ongoing pollution, health issues, and loss of livelihood. GICJ underscores the urgent need for comprehensive remediation and justice, stressing that the severe contamination of land and water continues to impact the daily lives of the Ogoni community. There is an urgent need for immediate and effective measures to address these longstanding issues and hold oil companies accountable by ensuring sufficient funds for cleanup; accountability and justice must happen faster so citizens can move on with the trials and seek solutions.

#Nigeria #Ogoni #Oil #Gaz #Right to Health #UNEP #Environment #Business #HumanRights Violation #GICJ #GenevaInternationalCenterforJustice #Gevena4Justice





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