Environmental crises in Nigeria and extraterritorial judicial achievements: A wake-up call for Nigerian courts?

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Written by Cleverline T Brown, Doctoral student, member of Environmental Law and Sustainability Research Group.

The decisions of extraterritorial courts have left much to be desired about the efforts of the judiciary at the national level to assert itself in the fight to tackle environmental crises. While access to court has been one of the notable barriers to securing environmental justice in Nigeria, alternative pathways have been established through which litigants find access to courts in furtherance of environmental justice which they would otherwise have been deprived of. One such pathway is the recourse to foreign courts. Nigerian courts can draw some lessons from the stance of foreign courts in dealing with environmental cases.

Notable cases decided in foreign jurisdictions

Three notable cases were decided in the last year that may have possibly marked a turning point in the way environmental cases are resolved. However, the Nigerian courts do not seem to be taking the cue as quickly as they need to, considering the volume of environmental cases pending or likely to be instituted.

Vedanta Resources Plc. and Another (Appellants) v Lungowe and Others (Respondents)

In this case,[1] the UK Supreme Court held that UK courts can assume jurisdiction in certain circumstances, over cases instituted in UK Courts by non-UK citizens against both foreign subsidiaries and the UK parent company in cases of human rights violation outside of the UK.[2] The Appellants vehemently opposed unsuccessfully, the institution of the case in the UK Court on grounds of jurisdiction and their willingness to submit to the jurisdiction of the Zambian Court. The opposition was rejected by the Supreme Court. The court reasoned that a parent company should take responsibility for harms caused by its subsidiaries and affirmed that England is the right jurisdiction to hear the claim because substantial justice is guaranteed where the claimants have access to appropriate legal representation which is unlikely in a Zambian Court.[3]

Okpabi and Others (Appellants) v Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Another (Respondents),

The UK Supreme Court, in this case,[4]held that the polluted Ogale and Bille communities can sue Royal Dutch Shell as a parent company to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) because it owed the communities a common law duty of care and raised a real and triable issue since it exercised significant control over material aspects of the operations of its subsidiary SPDC in the communities.[5] It is contended that this decision implies that rural communities who have suffered environmental harm due to the activities of multinational corporations can bring an action in the original jurisdiction of their parent companies.

Milieudefensie Voor Veranderaars (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) & Others v Royal Dutch Shell PLC[6]

In this case, Milieudefensie, six other organisations including Greenpeace and over 17,000 co-plaintiffs sued Royal Dutch Shell in an attempt to stop it from causing climate change.[7] The plaintiffs claimed that Shell is breaching its legal duty of care by causing climate change across the globe and undermining the ambition of the Paris Agreement[8] and demanded that Shell must remedy this unlawful situation by aligning its corporate activities and investment decisions with the global climate targets. This case is significant in the sense that it has attempted to force climate action through the court. The reliefs sought by the plaintiffs are first, that as a multinational and worldwide operating company, Shell accepts legal responsibility to amend its corporate strategy and investment decisions and to align them with the global climate change objectives laid down in the Paris Agreement by following the global emission reduction pathway of the IPCC. Second, that Shell immediately starts reducing its CO2 emissions to at least 45% by 2030 relative to 2019 levels, and to net zero in 2050. Only if Shell follows this emission reduction pathway, can it truly contribute to preventing catastrophic climate change. The court ruled in favour of the plaintiffs.

Resorting to extraterritorial jurisdiction: some concerns

While the option to seek access to courts in extraterritorial jurisdictions in environmental cases, guarantees access to appropriate legal representation and substantial justice,[9] it raises some concerns. First, prospective litigants must ensure that all other local remedies have been exhausted before they can approach some foreign courts.[10] While this would have been an opportunity for the national courts to play a stronger role, some of the challenges of the national courts would make this effort almost fruitless; for example, court delays, lack of specialised judges etc.[11]  Second, high cost of litigation in foreign courts and jurisdictional challenges as some courts may not have the power to hear and determine some cases.[12] Third, it is argued that the continuous reliance on this pathway robs the national courts of the opportunity to assert themselves and create lasting judicial precedence and case law.

Is this a wake-up call for the Nigerian courts?

Nigerian courts must take a cue from the stand of foreign courts in environmental cases and give better audience and remedies to victims of environmental harm in Nigeria,[13] especially from foreign court decisions with impact in Nigeria. This will serve to strengthen environmental laws in Nigeria and encourage institutional structures in their implementation functions. The stand of the Nigerian courts can serve to strengthen the law, policy statements and ultimately support the efforts at effective regulation of the environment and petroleum sector operation.

There are some positive signals from the Nigerian judiciary. In the case of Centre for Oil Pollution Watch v Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC),[14] the Nigerian Supreme Court removed the locus standi barrier by granting NGOs the right to sue without exhibiting specific injury to them. Prior to this decision, NGOs and third parties lacked the locus standi to sue where sufficient interest was not established.[15]

While this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done at the national level and examples are plentiful. For instance, the European Commission is finally ready to consider a new law to hold businesses accountable for their impact on people and the planet.[16] These rules on ‘mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence’ would require all companies, from fossil fuel giants and agribusiness to fashion retailers and electronics makers, to establish effective policies to make sure human rights and the environment are not being harmed in their global operations and supply chains.[17] In the Netherlands, Urgenda[18] sued the Dutch government to force them to reduce CO2 emissions in the country.[19] Urgenda succeeded on appeal when the Supreme Court of the Netherlands emphasised the duty of the state to protect its citizens by reducing CO2 emissions as soon as possible.[20] In Germany, it has also been held by the First Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany that the provision of the Federal Climate Change Act of 2019 is at variance with fundamental rights because they lack specificity for emission reduction beyond 2031.[21] In addition to the Supreme Court decision on locus standi of NGOs and third parties, the Nigerian judiciary could act suo moto and be proactive in contesting legislative provisions or policies of government that are incompatible with fundamental rights. Considering the volume of actions arising from the petroleum sector, the judiciary needs to play a far more important role in ensuring environmental justice.

Conclusion

Local communities are more vulnerable to the negative impacts of environmental decisions of multinational corporations.[22]  Oftentimes, it takes a long time for victims of environmental harm to get relief because of the many obstacles of access to courts and remedies. However, the audience and remedies that prove elusive in Nigerian courts are found in foreign courts. Considering the achievement by foreign courts and the effort of other national courts at holding perpetrators of environmental harm accountable as discussed above, Nigerian courts could use this opportunity to reassert themselves in environmental law cases before it. This is a wake-up call for Nigerian courts to rise to the occasion and improve on their judicial precedents regarding environmental law decisions. Since judicial decisions and statutory interpretations form part of the law, this can further strengthen the environmental legal framework of Nigeria and also solve the problem of access to courts and remedies.


[1] Vedanta Resources Plc and Anor (Appellants) v Lungowe and Others (Respondents) [2019] UKSC 20.

[2] The UK Supreme Court rationale for this decision was that considering some factors such as competence, capacity and integrity of Zambia’s justice system, evidence abounds that the Zambian claimants would almost certainly not get access to justice if the claims were pursued in Zambia.

[3] TV Ho, ‘Vedanta Resources Plc and Another v Lungowe and Others’ (2020) 114(1) The American Journal of International Law 110, 113; PT Sambo, ‘Vedanta Resources PLC and Konkola Copper Mines PLC v Lungowe and Others [2019] UKSC 20′ (2019) 2(2) SAIPAR Case Review 5.

[4] Okpabi and Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Anor [2021] UKSC 31. On appeal from [2018] EWCA Civ 191.

[5] E Ojeda, ‘Transnational Corporate Liability Litigation and Access to Environmental Justice: The Vedanta v Lungowe Case’ (2021) 6(3) LSE Law Review 223, 224.

[6] Milieudefensie Voor Veranderaars (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) & Ors v royal Dutch Shell PLC ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:5339.

[7] ‘Milieudefensie et al v Royal Dutch Shell PLC’ (2021) <https://climate-laws.org/geographies/netherlands/litigation_cases/milieudefensie-et-al-v-royal-dutch-shell-plc> accessed 9 June 2021.

[8] Milieudefensie, Friends of the Earth Netherlands. ‘Notice Letter Shell’ (2021) <https://en.milieudefensie.nl/news/noticeletter-shell.pdf> accessed 26 May 2021.

[9] See Vedanta Resources Plc and Anor v Lungowe and Others [2019} UKSC 20; Okpabi and Ors v Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Anor [2021] UKSC 31. On appeal from [2018] EWCA Civ 191; Milieudefensie Voor Veranderaars (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) & Ors v royal Dutch Shell PLC ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:5339.

[10] Article 50 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

[11] These challenges usually negatively impact the justice delivery in such cases.

[12] Ojeda (n 5) 224; S Varvastian and F Kalunga, ‘Transnational Corporate Liability for Environmental Damage and Climate Change: Reassessing Access to Justice after Vedanta v Lungowe‘ (2020) 9(2) Transnational Environmental Law 323, 330; EO Popoola, ‘Moving the Battlefields: Foreign Jurisdictions and Environmental Justice in Nigeria’ <https://items.ssrc.org/…environments/moving-the-battlefields-foreign-jurisd…> accessed 19 August 2019; Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) v. Nigeria, ECW/CCJ/APP/08/09; RULING No: ECW/CCJ/APP/07/10.

[13] As exhibited in the three landmark judgments outlined in this writing.

[14]  (2019) 5 NWLR (Pt.1666) 518.

[15] See Oronto Douglas v Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited & Ors (1998) LPELR-CA/L/143/97 Law Pavilion Electronic Law Report- Court of Appeal.

[16] S Kotanidis, ‘Parliament’s Right of Legislative Initiative’ (2020) <https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/646174/EPRS_BRI(2020)646174_EN.pdf> accessed 8 June 2021.

[17] Austrian Chamber of Labour (AK), ‘What is Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence?’ (2021) <https://www.enforcinghumanrights-duediligence.eu/en/what-is-due-diligence> accessed 27 May 2021.

[18] An organisation for innovation and sustainability that promotes the sustainability of Netherlands in conjunction with companies, governments, social organisations and private individuals.

[19] Urgenda Foundation v State of the Netherlands [2015] HAZA C/09/00456689.

[20] KJ De Graaf and JH Jans, ‘The Urgenda Decision: Netherlands Liable for Role in Causing Dangerous Global Climate Change’ (2015) 27(3) Journal of Environmental Law 517, 527.

[21] Bundesverfassungsgericht, ‘Constitutional Complaints Against the Federal Climate Change Act Partially Successful’ (2021) <https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/EN/2021/bvg21-031.html;jsessionid=BDDC5CCCCC30DD7A5791EAC6A0ECA022.1_cid377> accessed 8 June 2021.

[22] S Varvastian and F Kalunga, ‘Transnational Corporate Liability for Environmental Damage and Climate Change: Reassessing Access to Justice after Vedanta v Lungowe‘ (2020) 9 (2) Transnational Environmental Law 323, 324.