It has been made known to Nigerian farmers by a Dutch court that they can sue Royal Dutch Shell in Netherlands for the pollution they blame on oil spills from the pipelines of the company’s Nigerian subsidiary.
Shell had challenged the authority of Dutch courts to rule on its activities in Nigeria.
Judges in The Hague ordered Shell to make available to the court documents that might cast light on the cause of the spills and whether leading managers were aware of them.
A lower Dutch court had in 2013 found that Shell’s parent company could not be held liable for leakages of oil at its Nigerian subsidiary.
In that ruling, judges said Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was partly responsible and ordered it to compensate farmers and fishermen in one claim, but not in the three other claims.
The legal dispute dates back to 2008 when four Nigerian farmers and a campaign group, Friends of the Earth, filed a suit against Shell in its global headquarters, Netherlands.
“Shell can be taken to court in the Netherlands for the effects of the oil spills. Shell is also ordered to provide access to documents that could shed more light on the cause of the leaks,” the court was quoted by Reuters to have said on Friday.
The court, which still has to decide if Shell is in fact responsible for the Nigerian spills, will continue to hear the case in March 2016.
Judge Hans van der Klooster said the court had also found that it “has jurisdiction in the case against Shell and its subsidiary in Nigeria”.
Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited, in a statement said, “We are disappointed the Dutch court has determined it should assume international jurisdiction over SPDC.
“We believe allegations concerning Nigerian plaintiffs in dispute with a Nigerian company, over issues which took place within Nigeria, should be heard in Nigeria,” it said.
The SPDC noted that in 2013, the court found that Royal Dutch Shell had no liability in relation to the claims.
“As the claims against the SPDC relied on the Royal Dutch Shell claims to establish jurisdiction in the Netherlands, in our view the court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction over SPDC on this occasion,” the statement said.
The four farmers and fishermen, backed by the Dutch branch of the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, first filed the case in 2008 against the Anglo-Dutch company in a court case thousands of kilometres from their homes.
They want Shell to clean up devastating oil spills in four heavily-polluted villages in the Niger Delta, prevent further spills and pay compensation.
The farmers also want Shell to disclose a number of documents they believe could show the company’s negligence in maintaining its oil pipelines and guarding against sabotage.
In return, court documents reveal that Shell wanted the judges to scrap Dutch jurisdiction over cases in Nigeria and rule the farmers’ appeal inadmissible.
“The ruling is a major victory, not only for the farmers, but indeed for the people of Nigeria,” Friends of the Earth spokesman, Geert Ritsema, said.
“It sets a massive precedent, which means that Dutch courts can make judgments’ about Dutch companies in other countries,” he said.
None of the four farmers were at the court, but a Friends of the Earth official said they followed proceedings via Skype “and were overjoyed with the verdict.”
“They are so happy that their efforts for all these years were not in vain,” the official added.