UK Government faces tough questions after intervention to aid Shell in US court case on human rights abuses in Niger Delta

The UK Government is facing a series of difficult questions after it surfaced that it has chosen to intervene on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell in a major US court case brought against the oil giant by Nigerian villagers.

Kiobel v Shell is the latest incarnation of a long-running legal battle fought by communities in the Niger Delta, who claim that Shell is responsible for serious human rights abuses and environmental damage in the region.

Over 2,000 oil spills have been reported in the Niger Delta, which, according to Amnesty International, have devastated the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, the companies responsible, which include Shell, have to date failed to adequately compensate those affected.

The Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition, a group of human rights, development and environmental NGOs, is now determined to find out why the UK Government has chosen to intervene and has submitted a wide range of formal Freedom of Information requests.

Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s Economic Relations Programme Director, said:

“The UK Government’s position is wrong and deeply troubling. In intervening in this way, the UK has chosen to champion corporate interests over human rights accountability, purporting to use neutrally applicable arguments about the reach of international law. In practice it has intervened only to defend a UK corporation accused of complicity in gross human rights violations.

“The UK has developed its position in secret, without consulting affected groups and in isolation from any cross-cutting approach to business and human rights. While the UK Government claims to support the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a matter of policy, it undermines that support by attempting to block judicial remedies for human rights abuses committed by a UK company in another country. The Government argues that the US may not legitimately exercise jurisdiction in this case but ignores the possibility that universal jurisdiction for gross human rights abuses committed by corporations is an important element of an international solution to holding companies accountable for their human rights impacts.”

Marilyn Croser, Co-ordinator of the CORE Coalition, added:

“The UK Government's intervention in this case runs counter to its stated policy that companies should behave with respect for the human rights of people in the countries where they do business. We call on the UK government to withdraw its submission to the Kiobel case and to clearly state its expectation that Shell takes full responsibility for the environmental damage and human rights abuses that have resulted from its operations in the Niger Delta.

“Victims of corporate human rights abuses in developing countries face huge obstacles when they try to access justice. As shown in this case, local systems often do not deliver, making it essential to have avenues such as the US Alien Tort Claims Act.

“The Government has made a commitment to implement a lobbyists' register. This case demonstrates that there's an urgent need for greater transparency about corporate lobbying in the UK.”

The Kiobel v Shell case has been brought in the US under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows foreigners to sue in US courts for damages in violation of international law.

In February the UK government submitted an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court on the side of Shell, setting out a narrow interpretation of international law which precludes US courts from exercising jurisdiction in such cases of human rights violations committed outside the US by foreign companies.

This is at odds with the position of the US government, which submitted a brief supporting the right of the claimants to bring such cases before the US courts.

The CORE Coalition and Amnesty International recommend that the Government withdraw its intervention in Kiobel v Shell. Amnesty has urged the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the reasons behind this intervention.

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