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Dutch MPs over Niger Delta: Who messed up?

Published on : 25 January 2011 – 5:15pm | By Hélène Michaud

Royal Dutch Shell faces serious probing by the Dutch parliament on Wednesday into its profitable yet controversial operations in Nigeria.  MPs contacted by Radio Netherlands Worldwide see the hearing as a “fact-finding” exercise they hope will help deepen their understanding of the situation in the oil-rich Niger Delta where Shell has been extracting oil for over 50 years.

The public hearing, officially about Corporate Social Responsibility in West Africa, is expected to focus on the oil multinational’s record in Nigeria.

War of numbers
Stakeholders are waging a war of numbers about the extent of the massive environmental degradation oil exploration has brought to the region. Who’s to blame? Shell? The Nigerian government? Thieves and thugs? Militant groups? And who should clean up the oil spills and stop the gas flaring? Meanwhile, as the finger pointing goes on, local fishermen and farmers continue to lose their livelihoods.

In Shell’s view, sabotage of its pipelines accounts for around 98 percent of the oil spills affecting its operations. Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International say Shell has deliberately exaggerated the number of cases of sabotage in order to avoid paying compensation.

Dutch parliamentarians hope to find out who’s right after questioning these organisations, local NGOs, the scientific community and the Anglo-Dutch multinational itself, represented by Shell Netherlands President Peter de Wit, and Ian Craig, the company’s Vice-President for Sub-Saharan Africa.

The situation is indeed “complex” as Shell will conclude in its presentation. Two MPs who visited the Niger Delta in preparation for the hearing share this perception: they witnessed how the corrupt Nigerian government is not only lax at enforcing environmental regulations, but is actually involved in and profiting from widespread oil theft (known as “bunkering) in the Delta.

Oil companies should clean up spills
A spokesman for the largest party in the current coalition, the conservative VVD, traditionally close to Dutch corporations, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide that his party is approaching the hearing with an open mind. They intend to ask Shell how it deals with corruption and will also ask why all stakeholders don’t just sit down together with the local population to examine the situation.

Regarding oil spills, the VVD’s position, MP Afke Schaart states, is that “many oil spills are a result of sabotage“. Legally, the party explains, “environmental pollution that results from oil spills should be cleaned up by the oil company that owns the pipelines.” The VVD says further spills should be prevented.

Labour Party MP Sjoera Dikkers, who visited the Niger Delta recently, will ask Shell how it can “improve its transparency” and “to what extent Shell uses its influence on the [Nigerian] government.” She has questions for environmental groups too: what kind of dialogue do they want to engage in with Shell and how do they perceive the fact that residents of the delta pollute their own environment through the sabotage of pipelines?

The hearing is unlikely to turn in to a Shell-bashing exercise, Socialist Party MP Sharon Gesthuizen predicts. She instigated this hearing and also visited the region in order to assess the situation herself. Ms. Gesthuizen will ask if Shell can do more to fight corruption inside the company and also how the Dutch government can support the company.

Shell has consistently refused to expose the widespread corruption within the Nigerian government, Nigerian activist Sunny Ofehe will point out, “for fear of being expunged and as such be seen as an accomplice to the destruction of the Niger Delta environment. ” He will be one of the 12 guest speakers at the hearing.

Environmentalists, activists and politicians alike will be calling for more openness on the part of the company.

“They’re going to have to be more open about what they see and what they know about the situation in the country itself. They have to accept their responsibilities”, Ms. Gesthuizen says. In return, she feels, the Dutch will need to be more explicit about what they expect from their companies and what those companies should do when confronted with human rights violations.

Close watch on follow-up
While the MPs probe the invited speakers, in an unprecedented exercise for the Dutch parliament, the world will be watching and wondering what the lawmakers will do with the information that is gathered. As another speaker, Amnesty International’s Audrey Gaughran, puts it , “having a hearing in parliament is a very productive step but it has to be followed up and it is the follow-up that everybody will be watching.”


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