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Oil Spills You Never Heard Of

An oil pipeline explosion in Nigeria, May 15, 2008. This is a repeated occurence in the oil-rich west African nation, which has the continent's largest population. Photo © Pan-African News Wire

While the news about BP's Deepwater Horizon platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is on a 24-hour news feed, it took a long boat ride and some serious slogging by John Vidal of The Observer to uncover a bigger and far deadlier oil spill near the village of Otuegwe in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, as Foreign Policy in Focus blogger Conn Hallinan notes this week.

The culprits in Nigeria are Shell and Exxon Mobil, whose 40-year old pipelines break with distressing regularity, pouring oil into the locals’ fishing grounds and drinking water. The Delta supports 606 oil fields that supply close to 40 percent of U.S. oil imports, Hallinan writes.

Just last month, an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured in the state of Akwa Ibom, dumping more than a million gallons into the Delta before it was patched. According to Ben Ikari, a writer and member of the local Ogoni people, “This kind of thing happens all the time in the Delta…the oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care, and people must live with the pollution daily. The situation is worse than it was 30 years ago.”

As Fred Grimm, writing in the Miami Herald, points out, the Nigerian government admits that 2,000 major oil spills, some years old, still await cleanup. Nigeria has tough-sounding environmental laws, but little enforcement by a government that has been compromised by big-oil money.

Nigerian government figures show there have been more than 9000 spills between 1970 and 2000.

Just how bad things are is not clear, because the oil companies and the Nigerian government will not make the figures public. But independent investigators estimate that over the past four decades the amount of oil released into the Delta adds up to 50 Exxon Valdez spills, or 550 million gallons.  According to the most recent government figures, up to June 3, Deepwater Horizon had pumped between 24 to 51 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.

Although CESR is not currently working in Nigeria, in March 1996, CESR and Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC), a Nigeria-based human rights organization jointly submitted a legal communication to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights regarding economic and social rights violations in Nigeria. The petition broke new ground at the Commission, which had yet to consider any of the economic and social guarantees contained in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The petition focused on violations of the rights to health, housing and food in Nigeria's oil-producing region and was intended to: 1) draw attention to the massive environmental and social problems underlying the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and other local activists; 2) broaden the range of human rights concerns considered by the Commission; and 3) provide a model communication for other human rights and social justice advocates in Africa.

Six years later the African Commission found the former military government of Nigeria guilty of economic, social and cultural rights violations against the Ogoni people in connection with state violence and abuses around oil development in the Niger Delta. The Commission also made recommendations for the current government to take remedial action for those violations.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on June 10th, 2010

Wiwa v Shell settlement just one small step toward ending corporate impunity

The pay-out by Shell to the families of nine executed Nigerian activists who brought a lawsuit against the oil company in the US has been rightly hailed as a victory for the relatives. But it is only a very small step along the road to justice and redress for human rights abuses committed in the context of oil exploitation.

Relatives of author Ken Saro-Wiwa (pictured) and eight other Ogoni activists hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 accused Shell and its subsidiaries of complicity in the activist’s deaths and other human rights abuses in the oil-rich Niger delta.

On Monday evening, Shell agreed to pay US$15.5 million to the families of the victims as part of an out-of-court settlement dismissing their claims. Shell denies “any wrongdoing or liability”, claiming that the pay-out is a “humanitarian gesture”. The settlement forestalls trial proceedings which would have exposed the oil company’s collusion in the brutal crackdown against the Ogoni movement by the military regime of the time.

The settlement can be seen as a partial step towards holding companies such as Shell accountable for the human rights impact of their operations. It will hopefully make the extractive industries more sensitive to the risk of possible human rights claims in future. Part of the pay-out will be used to establish a trust fund for social development programs in the Ogoni region.

But the settlement makes only a small dent in the impunity surrounding human rights violations in the context of oil exploitation by multi-national companies in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Shortly after the execution of the Ogoni activists, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and the Nigerian human rights organization Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) brought a complaint against Nigeria before the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The petition highlighted the devastating impact of oil exploitation on the rights to health, housing, food and livelihood of the Ogoni population.

In a ground-breaking decision, the African Commission held the military government responsible for violating the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and called on the newly-democratic government to take remedial action.

CESR and SERAC brought the case because we were adamant that the execution of Saro-Wiwa would not kill the struggle for the basic economic and social rights of the Ogoni people. The Commission’s findings upheld the demands which cost him and his fellow activists their lives. However, eight years on, the Nigerian government has still not heeded the Commission’s call to compensate those affected, to clean-up the environmental damage and to curb the oil industry’s destruction of livelihoods. The result has been ongoing economic and social rights violations as well as continued repression.

The lawsuit – brought by Nigerian plaintiffs in a US Court against an Anglo-Dutch corporation - shows that the search for accountability can also be multi-national. Victims denied justice and redress in their own country will continue to take their struggle to international human rights commissions and foreign courts in the hope of making their voices heard.

It can take years of tireless and sustained campaigning for these efforts to yield results - five years in the case of CESR/SERAC v. Nigeria, and thirteen in the case of Wiwa v. Shell. The small but significant victory achieved by the Ogoni plaintiffs and the lawyers and NGOs who worked with them proves that these efforts are not in vain.

For further background and documentation on Wiwa v Shell, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International.

You can also read more on the CESR and SERAC v Nigeria case.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz on June 10th, 2009

Chevron wants $500,000 from Nigerian villagers who sought justice in human rights case

Chevron Corp., which prevailed in a human-rights lawsuit seeking to hold it responsible for the shooting of Nigerian protesters at an oil platform, is seeking nearly $500,000 in legal costs from the villagers who brought the suit, the Los Angeles Times reported this week.

Lawyers for the villagers had sought to hold the oil giant responsible for the 1998 shooting and mistreatment of protesters by Nigerian soldiers at the Parabe oil rig off the coast of Nigeria. They have filed an appeal in the case, which is scheduled to be heard next month.

Advocates and lawyers for the Nigerians said they were outraged by Chevron's attempt to seek money from the plaintiffs, including one who was shot and wounded, another who was arrested and tortured and others whose husbands or fathers were killed.

Laura Livoti, founder of San Francisco Bay Area-based Justice in Nigeria Now, said the $485,000 sought by Chevron, California's largest company, would constitute a fortune for the Nigerians. That sum would be enough to sustain at least four villages in the Niger Delta for a year, she said.

"Chevron's attempt to squeeze nearly half a million dollars out of poor villagers who don't even have access to clean drinking water and who had wanted jobs with the company is a dramatic illustration of Chevron's heartlessness," Livoti told the Los Angeles Times.

In 2002, the Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Social and Economic Rights Action Center prevailed before the African Commission on Human and People's Rights in a legal case against the Nigerian government, for violations of the economic and social rights of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta committed more than six years earlier.

The Commission acknowledged that the military government of Nigeria was directly involved in oil production through the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), the majority shareholder in a consortium with Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), and that these operations caused environmental degradation and health problems resulting from the contamination of the environment among the Ogoni People.

Further, the Commission found the Nigerian government guilty of economic, social and cultural rights violations against the Ogoni people in connection with state violence and abuses around oil development in the Niger Delta. The Commission also made recommendations for the current government to take remedial action for those violations.

Posted by Kevin Donegan on February 12th, 2009