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Shell and activists accuse each other of delaying oil case

Published on : 19 May 2011 – 4:46pm | By Hélène Michaud

Royal Dutch Shell and Dutch environmentalists accused each other of using delaying tactics in a potentially ground-breaking court case on Thursday in the Hague.

The oil giant is being sued at home by the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth for oil leaks that polluted farmers’ fields and fishing ponds in Nigeria, and for failing to clean up the contamination.

Shell says that the leaks were caused by sabotage and that it is therefore not responsible for the damage caused to the environment.

Trial in a trial

Thursday’s session consisted of  a “ trial within a trial”:  lawyers representing  the environmental organisation and four Nigerian farmers requested that Shell make public documents they deem necessary to establish responsibility for the oil spills. They argued that by withholding the documents, Shell is using delaying tactics and preventing the case from getting to the heart of the matter. “They are trying to wear us out” , said Friends of the Earth/Milieu defensie spokesman Geert Ritstema.

In their plea, FoE lawyers put forward Dutch jurisprudence regarding the duty to disclose information that is relevant for all parties. They said “equality of arms” was required in a situation where the multinational has greater access to facts and technical expertise. They are trying to prove that the parent company in the Netherlands is responsible for environmental degradation caused by its operations in Nigeria.

Fishing for documents

Shell, for its part, argued that the environmentalists, by trying to force access to more documents,  are themselves avoiding a confrontation by simply ‘fishing’ for documents they say are not only irrelevant for the case, but also often confidential.  Shell spokesmen did not hide their frustration at the accusing party either. “They are keeping the debate as vague and as general as possible”, company jurist Alessandro Ligutto said. The company maintains that it has already released a sufficient number of relevant documents.

The company suggested that sensitive or confidential  information, if released, might be misused in Friends of the Earth’s public campaign against Shell, or by militants in the Niger Delta.

During Thursday’s court session in The Hague, Shell’s lawyers showed company videos that seemed to show that leaking pipelines had been “tampered with” and did not leak as a result of improper maintenance, as is claimed by the accusing party. Video images showed “saw” cuts in pipelines that suggested acts of sabotage. FoE say the videos present only part of the picture.

The ruling on the issue of document disclosure is expected on September 14. This trial against Shell is the first in which a Dutch multinational is taken to court at home for damage done abroad.

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