A rebel’s last word in court

In February 2022, a series of court cases  against several rebels of Extinction Rebellion took place in the Netherlands. The rebels used civil disobedience to protest for climate policies that protect lives and keep the climate crisis from escalating further. In all of these cases, the prosecution picked only a few participants from the massive XR protests and prosecuted them for multiple actions. On Tuesday, February 22, two earth defenders were prosecuted on eight charges. It was clear that the prosecution was pulling out all the stops to portray climate justice advocates who were peacefully protesting as dangerous criminals.

One of the rebels who had to appear in court several times was Sandra. She was previously prosecuted and found guilty for her contribution to a protest against the oil spills and health hazards Shell has been causing in Nigeria for decades. At this protest, Sandra poured oil-looking washable biodegradable molasses on the stairs at Shell’s main entrance in The Hague. In this way she brought Shell’s crimes close to home.

The irony could not be greater: in fact, between 1976 and 1991, Shell caused the spillage of more than two million oil barrels in Ogoniland, Nigeria, in 2,976 separate oil spills (Source). And from 2011 to 2018, Shell reported 1,010 oil spills in Nigeria contaminating 110,535 oil barrels or 17.5 million litres (Source). Amnesty International notes that while these are already huge figures the actual scale could be much greater and that the Nigerian state has recorded 1369 oil spills for which Shell is allegedly responsible. It is common knowledge that Shell does not clean up this mess in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world and that polluted water is causing disease and even death among the local population. And while Shell has had to appear in court several times and has also been convicted, the company that enriches itself on the misery of victims of pollution has not, to date, abandoned its (natural) violent business model.

On March 3, Sandra received the ruling of the appeal on the imposed fine of 350 euros.  Unfortunately, the judge once again condemned the act of using washable sugar molasses- the biodegradable black substance that served to make visible the horror of the destruction of land, water and health of the local population. The court held that Sandra’s performance criticism “intentionally and unlawfully rendered useless any property belonging in whole or in part to another.“ What a cynical joke.

Apart from the fact that it is not true that she rendered the building or anything else belonging to Shell unusable (the washable substance that was used in the protest was immediately removed on the same day, now years ago), the tactic of visually imitating harmful oil spills has been very successful in other cases.

Numerous actions have been carried out in the Netherlands and abroad using the same sugar molasses, which have not led to criminal prosecution but even campaign victories for the climate movement. So it seems that this case is about arbitrary prosecution with the aim of creating a ‘chilling effect’ among activists. In this way other people are intimidated and, in the eyes of the prosecution, will be less inclined to express their indignation about Shell’s crimes in public.

Let’s not forget that visually stimulating protest has a function. The most high-profile example of actions that mimicked oil spills are the campaigns that Fossil Free Culture has conducted to get cultural institutions to break their business relationship with Shell. 

A washable and biodegradable black substance was frequently used in these unannounced art projects, in and around museums and the concert hall in Amsterdam. The videos of these fossil-free performances show that it is not activism but Shell itself that has destroyed water, land and bodies through massive ecological disruption. Other examples include protest performances against BP by LiberateTate or the Fossil Free unannounced performance at the Louvre that generated a lot of media attention with a ‘fake oil spill’ in 2015.

We would now like to share Sandra’s final words that she told to the judge in the hearing of her appeal in February 2022. To her the last word:

Dear judges,

I would first like to thank you for taking the time to hear my case and would like to take this opportunity to once again speak for myself.  

In the original trial, now two years ago, in my last word I told a story about the importance of civil disobedience and why it is important to me in particular. If it is alright, you can read this back in the trial documents, so I don’t need to repeat it.

Nor do I need to repeat why the climate crisis is such a huge problem. Two years later, it is still one of the biggest crises, maybe even the biggest crisis, that we will continue to face in the coming years and that is still not being adequately addressed.

For this reason, I have not been idle for the past two years either. I remain committed to a just world.

However, Shell has not been idle these two years either. As an example, last year they began new oil explorations in South Africa. Apart from the fact that tapping into new oil reserves during a climate crisis is morally reprehensible, Shell also decided to use seismic blasting for this purpose. This is a method where sound waves in the form of explosions of over 250 decibels are used to locate new oil reserves. You can imagine that these sound waves have an enormous detrimental impact on the animals that live in these areas. This therefore also led to fierce protests worldwide, especially in South Africa, and these practices were eventually shut down by a judge.

Shell says, increasingly loudly, that they want to promote and even lead the energy transition and abide by the Paris Agreement. But in their energy transition plan, the oil company’s carbon emissions end up staying the same or even rising over the next few decades and they continue to pour tens of billions of dollars into fossil fuels. In 2020, they have extracted more than 600 million barrels of crude oil and natural gas. That’s a lot and they continue to invest in extracting even more oil. 

It is not for nothing that Shell was fiercely challenged by the courts in the Netherlands last year as well. I still remember the victory of Milieudefensie against Shell, in which a judge ruled that Shell must drastically reduce CO2 emissions and take responsibility for the emissions of their customers. Another judge ruled last year that Shell was responsible for the oil spills in Nigeria early last year. And currently there is also a lawsuit pending in the French court over the poisoning of workers in Nicaragua by the use of banned pesticides. In addition, Shell has twice in the past year been reprimanded by the Dutch Advertising Committee for their misleading advertisements in which they present themselves as a green company. Quite a bold claim for a company that is still in the top 10 most polluting companies in the world. 

However, the past has shown that Shell cares little for court rulings, illustrated by the mess in Nigeria, among other places. It is therefore to be expected that Shell will simply continue with its planned oil and gas extraction, despite various rulings. Demonstrations will therefore remain necessary. And that is precisely why we have made ourselves heard in the past two years, such as at various shareholders’ meetings, the commemoration of the Ogoni 9 and several times at their oil refinery in Pernis. Worldwide protests against Shell are also growing. Earlier I mentioned the demonstrations in South Africa, but also in Brazil, Argentina and Canada the voices of indigenous people are becoming louder. People all over the world are taking to the streets against Shell and against other companies like Shell. 

Now I know that you can only comment on the case in front of you and are not in a position to hold Shell accountable or condemn it. And I respect that as well. But hopefully you see that it is justified and important to demonstrate against a company like Shell, even with symbolic acts like spilling fake oil across the stairs. 

And although Shell’s staircase has been cleaned for over two years and no one was put in danger [by the action], the oil in Nigeria has still not been cleaned up. And although we wanted to clean up the fake oil ourselves, Shell is planning to leave 11 thousand tons of oil in their oil platforms in the North Sea because it is easier and cheaper than cleaning up after themselves

Demonstrations and actions against Shell are necessary and I will continue to support them as a non-violent activist. I ask you to respect and grant my right to these demonstrations, including symbolic actions, because it is so necessary to be able to make these kinds of statements.

Code Rood has deep respect for Sandra’s perseverance in standing up for the right to protest against injustice. On behalf of Code Rood, we express deep outrage at the outcome of this judgement which can be seen as an attack on protest rights. We will continue to work with other earth defenders that stand up for the interests of violated earthlings by ecocide to date and in the future.