SERAP v. Federal Republic of Nigeria

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The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a non-governmental organization, filed a case against the Federal Republic of Nigeria alleging human rights violations as a result of the government’s failure to ensure adequate environmental protection in the Niger Delta due to oil spillage.

SERAP alleged that decades of oil prospection and exploitation by private corporations in the Niger Delta had damaged the health and livelihoods of area inhabitants by denying them basic necessities of life, such as adequate access to clean water, education, healthcare, food and a clean and healthy environment. The oil spills have destroyed crops and destroyed the soil quality. Further, it was alleged that oil spills have resulted in destruction of crops, soil quality and water contamination.

SERAP claimed that the Nigerian government’s failure to effectively enforce environmental protection measures in these circumstances violate its international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The government contended that SERAP did not have standing to sue (Locus Standi) and that the Court did not have jurisdiction to rule on alleged violations of the ICESCR or the ICCPR.

In pre-trial rulings, the Court found that SERAP was a legal person and had the standing to institute the action. The Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the private oil corporations initially listed in the suit, and they were subsequently stuck from the suit.

The Court held that the Federal Republic of Nigeria had violated Articles 1 and 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights by their failure to protect the Niger Delta environment from degradation. Article 24 states that: ˝All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development˝. Article 1 states that member States are required to recognize the rights enshrined in the Charter and to adopt legislative or other measures to give effect to these rights.

The Court held that, when viewed together, Articles 1 and 24 impose a positive obligation on member States to take every measure necessary to maintain the quality of the environment, such that it can satisfy the human inhabitants and enhance their sustainable development. Although the Nigerian government had taken a number of legislative measures to respond to the environmental situation in the Niger Delta, the Court held that, in practice, these measures were insufficient to prevent the continued environmental degradation of the region. The Court ruled that the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s failure to prevent environmental degradation and to hold the offenders of the damage accountable violated Articles 1 and 24 of the Charter.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s request for reparations of 1 billion dollars (USD). Instead, the Court ordered the Federal Republic of Nigeria to take all effective measures to ensure restoration of the environment of the Niger Delta, prevent further damage to environment, and to hold the perpetrators of the environmental damage accountable.

“In the instant case, what is in dispute is not a failure of the Defendants to allocate resources to improve the quality of life of the people of Niger Delta, but rather a failure to use the State authority, in compliance with international obligations, to prevent the oil extraction industry from doing harm to the environment, livelihood and quality of life to the people of that region.” (Para 33) 

“The environment, as emphasised by the International Court of Justice, ˝is not an abstraction but represents the living space, the quality of life and the very health of human beings, including generations unborn˝ (Legality of the threat or use of nuclear arms, ICJ Advisory Opinion of 8 July 2006, paragraph 28). It must be considered as an indivisible whole, comprising the ˝biotic and abiotic natural resources, notably air, water, land, fauna and flora and the interaction between these same factors (International Law Institute, Resolution of 4 September 1997, Article 1). The environment is essential to every human being. The quality of human life depends on the quality of the environment.” (Para 100)

 “If, notwithstanding the measures the Defendant alleges having put in place, the environmental situation in the Niger Delta Region has still been of continuous degradation, this Court has to conclude that there has been a failure on the part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to adopt any of the “other” measures required by the said Article 1 of African Charter to ensure the enjoyment of the right laid down in Article 24 of the same instrument.” (Para 107)


“The Court acknowledges that the continuous environmental degration in the Niger Delta Region produced devastating impact on the livelihood of the population; it may have forced some people to leave their area of residence in search for better living conditions and may even have caused health problems

to many. But in its application and through the whole proceedings, the Plaintiff failed to identify a single victim to whom the requested pecuniary compensation could be awarded.” (Para 114)