The People's Health Tribunal advertising van displaying testimonies drove around London for the day to bring awareness to the general public and those who work in the offices of the fossil fuel giants. Photography by Unveilral.
The People’s Health Tribunal was held over two days and heard people from multiple African countries come together to give testimonies against extractive companies, such as petroleum company TotalEngergies and oil and gas company Shell. Organised by The People’s Health Movement and in collaboration with movements across the globe, the Tribunal was conducted to bear witness to the impact on people’s health through environmental injustice caused by extractivism. The People’s Health Movement demands that the companies responsible are held to account, and this Tribunal and subsequent protests are their way of taking steps towards that goal.
One of the ways the companies involved are being held accountable is by bringing the testimonies to their doorsteps in the historic heart of the empire, London. On 17th May 2023, I was tasked with photographing this event, which was held primarily outside County Hall in Waterloo, because they were hosting the Africa Energies Summit.
The People's Health Tribunal demonstrating outside County Hall, London where delegates entered the building for the Africa Energies Summit. Photography by Unveilral.
The Africa Energies Summit is a greenwashed meeting of those responsible for the catastrophic degradation of land in Africa, and the resulting harm caused to the people who live there. Its partners included Shell, and TotalEnergies, who were named in the People’s Health Tribunal. Supporters of the People’s Health Tribunal were able to target delegates as they entered the building with moving testimonies taken from the Tribunal.
The testimonies share experiences of how people on the front lines of extractivism are devastatingly facing shortened life expectancy, rare forms of cancer, their land claimed without adequate compensation and polluted drinking wells.
It comes as no surprise that any resistance by the people is met with criminalisation and violence. As well as visiting the African Energies Summit, we also stopped by the Shell headquarters, oil and gas company Perenco and oilfield services company SLB offices. The People’s Health Tribunal enlisted an ‘AdVan’ which televised the testimonies and quotes that were given during the Tribunal.
The People's Health Tribunal outside the offices of Perenco, Pascal Mirindi, a Congolese citizen speaks about oil exploitation by Perenco, who have bought land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photography by Unveilral.
Unlike other ecological movements in Britain, the People’s Health Tribunal does not just focus on the environment and nature but also brings attention to the human impact, with one of their key organisers being The People’s Health Movement. By bringing focus to people’s health, we can see the immediate human cost. It puts people who live in those areas and their struggles to the forefront, whilst showing our symbiotic relationship with the Earth and that we cannot survive without it. They describe their use of the term ‘health’ as being “…understood in its most expansive sense. This means health is not only a complete state of physical, mental, social well-being as it pertains to the individual, but is collective, ecological, cultural and spiritual. From here, we reaffirm the universal right to such health”.
By tackling people’s health, we can help stop fossil fuels and serve racial justice. This approach has meant that instead of protests merely giving lip service to people in the global majority, those people are at the front of the movement, but people in the UK are able to support and push their message to those in power. Not only is this a better way to show how embedded people are with their environment, but we hear exactly how these corporations are affecting individual lives instead of statistics and second-hand reporting. It shows that the land is not only necessary for livelihoods but also a place people have historical, sacred bonds to.
The People's Health Tribunal reading testimonies out at the entrance to Shell Headquarters. Photography by Unveilral.
There are other ways in which the People’s Health Tribunal has made this movement inclusive, such as through language justice. The Tribunal has been organised across multiple languages so that everyone can communicate in the language they feel most comfortable with. This helps to prevent one language from being dominant, allowing people to better understand and to be better understood. Organizing across lines of language allows for equality, which is at the heart of The People’s Movement.
The movement builds on the history of activism and supports the work of the people who are directly affected by the extractivism happening around them, forcing local communities to become activists and protect each other. It is leaders and members of these groups who have spoken out in the Tribunal to give an insight into the atrocities caused by extractivism.
The People’s Health movement is not solely focused on the illnesses caused by pollution and gas flaring, but also on the violence that activists face. Through this, we can see how oil companies have grabbed power from the state and utilised the police.
In one incident in the 1990s, over 50 youths were killed by Nigeria’s military government as they fled a peaceful protest
in the aftermath of environmental activist Ken Saro-Sinwa’s execution by hanging. The police had been given orders to shoot on-site to break up the protest. Shell and the government were business partners in the wells extracting oil from land, which brought them many riches. These murdered protesters were hoping to speak to the regional manager of the then-known Royal Dutch Shell Company.
The People's Health Tribunal demonstrating outside SLB offices in London. Photography by Unveilral.
The ruling of the Tribunal found Shell and TotalEnergies guilty of human rights abuses and harming the environment. Also receiving a guilty verdict were the governments of the United Kingdom and The Netherlands, where the oil company’s headquarters are based. The governments of Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, and Nigeria were found guilty of failing to introduce any legislation that could protect their people. This is proof of why it is necessary for transnational organising and protest to put an end to these fossil fuel companies.
Ultimately, the demands of The People’s Health Movement are carefully thought out and need to be acted on immediately if we are to stop the global climate systems breakdown and protect humanity.
If you are interested the tribunal can be found via peopleshealthhearing.org along with the verdict.