Staying on the Case

Today's post comes from JustMeans community member Christopher Cairns, who makes the case for appreciating all positions in the Niger Delta controversy in an attempt to find a solution.

Royal Dutch Shell’s recent $15.5 million settlement of the Wiwa v. Shell case is a landmark example of a company making a good faith attempt to settle the past. However, one thing is certain – the underlying grievances that caused Wiwa’s and others’ execution in the Niger Delta will not go away.

Three different worldviews converge in the Delta. The government sees its revenue and state security at stake, Shell sees its profitability, the safety of its personnel and its overall reputation connected to the “triple-bottom line” under threat, and the local communities and NGOs see both these actors contributing to their impoverishment through fostering environmental degradation and seizing wealth from the land without enriching the communities.

It’s important to emphasize that Shell faces very real consequences in Nigeria: the company has come under intense scrutiny for human rights in the past decade and is now the target of an Amnesty International report: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta. And, Nigeria represents a not-insignificant share of Shell’s total oil production.

But the company, in contrast to local communities, does have the ability to view the conflict in terms of an issue to be improved, not a life-or-death problem, while more desperate terrorist groups like the recently-emerged Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) may wrongly, but understandably, blame Shell for the Ogoni’s and other communities’ problems and see their violent removal as the only solution. The point is that to satisfy groups like Amnesty and the local communities, companies like Shell, fairly or unfairly, always have to go above and beyond – the more resources and power a given actor has, the higher the bar is set.

Shell’s recent conference call with JustMeans represents a welcome step in stakeholder engagement. Company External Relations head Nick Welch insists “it’s our goal to respond as human beings, not as some big corporate machine.” Going beyond this, Shell recently responded to Amnesty’s report, through the nonprofit Business and Human Rights Resource Centre by saying “we would be happy to meet to discuss some of the recommendations in the report” and addressing some of its specifics.

For their part, campaign groups like Amnesty do tremendously important work in exposing human rights abuses and uniquely combine leverage in “world power centers” like London and New York, with on-the-ground knowledge of what is happening through their local contacts. Yet these groups’ existence is also dependent on exposing rights abuses – they would not be who they are if they did not seek to attribute responsibility for violations in every case possible to one actor or another, and to ask probing questions of powerful actors such as companies.

So while Shell and other extractive industries companies stand to benefit from dialogue with Amnesty and local communities, NGOs also ultimately serve human rights better by fully appreciating the complex positions and challenges that companies face. The world still demands energy; the question is how.