Will corporations be held liable for international human rights violations?
Nigerians lawsuit against Shell Oil fuels debate in high court
In a lawsuit entitled Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, several Nigerians
contended that Shell Oil's parent company aided and abetted their
government in the torture and extrajudicial killing of environmental and
human rights protesters resisting Shell's operations in Nigeria in the
1990s. Now, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on whether
corporations, like real people, can be held liable in American courts
for international human rights violations.
In a lawsuit entitled Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, several Nigerians contended that Shell Oil's parent company aided and abetted their government in the torture and extrajudicial killing of environmental and human rights protesters resisting Shell's operations in Nigeria in the 1990s.
If that pattern remains in the Supreme Court, then the five justices appointed by Republican presidents will surely be hit with more accusations of pro-business bias. As in this current case, those justices have refused to hold corporations responsible, as real people are, for their roles in atrocities abroad.
The Nigerian plaintiffs brought their suit under a law, called the Alien Tort Statute, passed by the first Congress in 1789 to allow foreign nationals to bring civil suits in federal courts "for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."
The Alien Tort Statute lay virtually dormant from its founding-era passage until the 1970s, when human rights groups representing victims of oppressive regimes began taking advantage of the law's broad language to haul the alleged foreign tormentors before U.S. judges.
The Supreme Court has previously weighed in only once on the meaning of the law in 2004 to declare that only international law offenses that are as "specific, universal and obligatory" as those that existed when the statute was written could give rise to a lawsuit under the statute. Torture and genocide triggered the Alien Tort Statute, the Court suggested; arbitrary arrest and detention did not.
The justices left undecided what types of defendants -- individual, corporate, state -- can be sued.
In deciding Kiobel in 2010, the majority in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit divined its answer by asking whether any international courts have held corporations liable for human rights violations. Finding no such examples, the majority threw out the case.
Three other appeals courts have since disagreed with the 2nd Circuit in methodology and result when hearing cases under the Alien Tort Statute against Firestone, Exxon and Rio Tinto. These courts found that the question of corporate liability is up to individual countries to determine and that the U.S. domestic law has long held corporations to account for the wrongs they commit.
This week's oral argument should offer some hints at which path the justices will likely choose.
© 2012, Catholic Online. Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, corporations, Nigeria, Supreme Court
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