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Rebuffing Shell, Judge Affirms Greenpeace's Right to Protest

'Civil disobedience is a right in democracies' says Greenpeace head

Common Dreams staff

A judge in Amsterdam on Friday rejected the most sweeping measures of an injunction sought by giant Royal Dutch Shell against Greenpeace, affirming the environmental group's right to protest and calling their actions "both proportionate and appropriate" in light of the oil company's ongoing business activities.

Actions against Shell by Greenpeace campaigners "cannot be banned in advance" the court ruled. "Organizations such as Greenpeace are in principle free to carry out actions to let the public know about their point of view," it added.

The diminished injunction granted by the court is limited to Greenpeace International and Greenpeace Netherlands, the group clarified in a statement. "National and regional Greenpeace offices around the world operate independently in contributing to the implementation of global campaign strategies decided by Greenpeace International," they said.

Greenpeace has been pursuing a major international campaign against the oil giant over its plans to drill in the melting Arctic, and Greenpeace campaigners across the globe have staged a series of peaceful direct actions at fuel stations, on icebreaking ships and at company offices over the past year.

“A company like Shell, that is taking actions or plans to take actions that are controversial in society and which many people will object to, can and should expect that actions will be taken to try to change its mind. Such actions – in order to be effective – will have to be capable of disadvantaging Shell,” said President of the Amsterdam court, Han Jongeneel, in his decision.

“The principle of proportionality entails that actions should not go beyond what is necessary to reach the intended goal," he said. "The mere fact that such an action causes nuisance or loss for the business targeted by the action, in this case Shell, does not makes such an action illegal."

Initially, Shell called for a court injunction that would have prevented Greenpeace activists or sympathizers anywhere in the world from protesting legally within 500 meters of any Shell property—even on public properties—or face heavy fines.  They were forced to reduce those demands after the court warned that "excessive claims" would lead it to throw out the whole case.

“We must ask ourselves which party in this case presents a greater threat to the public interest – a peaceful environmental group or a desperate oil company determined to send rigs into the freezing Arctic ocean." —Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace

In his decision on Friday, however, Jongeneen ruled that Greenpeace actions were well within the bounds of their rights. He said the group, "by not taking action at all Shell fuel stations (about 600)," but only at roughly 70 of them had not unduly infringed on Shell's capacity to operate. "Therefore, there is no need to grant an injunction on this point; although Greenpeace will have to continue taking this requirement into account in future,” the judge said.

“Shell’s latest attempt to silence its critics has failed," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo in response to the news:

"The judge rejected the majority of this injunction and has reminded the company that civil disobedience is a right in democracies, even when its business is impacted. Over two million people have joined our campaign to protect the Arctic and they will not be deterred by unwarranted legal bullying.

“We must ask ourselves which party in this case presents a greater threat to the public interest – a peaceful environmental group or a desperate oil company determined to send rigs into the freezing Arctic ocean. Shell has no credible response plan in the event of an oil spill, which would be a financial and environmental disaster.

“This injunction will not prevent us from opposing Arctic drilling passionately and peacefully both in the Netherlands and across the world. We can’t match Shell’s enormous financial muscle, but we have creativity and millions of people behind us. This is the defining environmental battle of our time and we have only just begun.”

This year, Shell has pursued a highly aggressive legal strategy against Greenpeace and a range of other environmental groups:

  • In the United States, Greenpeace US is subject to an injunction preventing staff or supporters from coming within 500 metres of any Shell drilling or support vessel.
  • Separately, Greenpeace US and 12 other US environmental and Indigenous groups are being sued to preempt challenges to the company’s oil spill response plan.
  • In New Zealand, police are pursuing an inflated NZD 725,000 (€467,000) damage claim on behalf of Shell against activists, including actress Lucy Lawless, who occupied one of its two Arctic drilling rigs.

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