An Elusive Justice: Holding Parent Companies Accountable for Human Rights Abuse

Recently, the UK High Court threw out a case brought against oil giant Shell by two impoverished communities in the Niger Delta. It is a blow to the communities in their struggle for justice after suffering years of devastating oil spills.

But the judgement also has wider implications for corporate accountability, making it more difficult to bring future legal cases against UK companies that abuse human rights abroad. As such, the ruling goes to the heart of a situation in which multinational corporations enjoy an impunity that is sharply at odds with their enormous profits and power. It further demonstrates the need for legal reforms that actually improve access of victims of corporate abuse to courts in jurisdictions where large corporations are based (the ‘home’ state).

The reality is that people continue to suffer abuses at the hands of companies operating across borders — particularly in the developing world — but rarely receive any meaningful remedy. Picture the Nigerian woman who wakes up one morning to find that the riverbank where she used to collect shellfish has been covered in sticky black oil. Oil that is never properly cleaned up, and continues to leech into the water and soil for years, sometimes decades, destroying her livelihood and source of food, and putting her health at risk.

This is a familiar experience in the Niger Delta, where hundreds of oil spills take place every year. Decades of massive environmental destruction and its profound impacts on the rights of people living there have been well documented. Shell is the largest operator on land, and has been in the region since it first discovered oil there in 1956. In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme found that Shell’s procedure for cleaning up oil spills “does not achieve environmental standards according with Nigerian legislation, or indeed with [Shell Nigeria’s] own standards””does not achieve environmental standards according with Nigerian legislation, or indeed with [Shell Nigeria’s]…

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