Supreme Court Helps Corporations Protect Themselves Against Human Rights Violations Overseas

Monday, April 22, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court last week rejected an attempt by Nigerians living in the United States to sue a foreign oil company for allegedly aiding human rights violations in Nigeria.


The plaintiffs alleged that a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Petroleum, the parent company of Shell Oil, supported the Nigerian government in torturing and killing people protesting against the company’s construction of a pipeline in the Ogoni region in the 1990s.


The basis for their lawsuit rested in a 1789 law, the Alien Tort Statute, which U.S. courts have used since the 1980s to pursue injustices committed abroad by corporations. The legislation was passed by the first Congress and was signed into law by President George Washington.


But the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Nigerian plaintiffs, although they are now resident in the United States, could not sue in American courts. The decision could limit other attempts to use the 1789 law for addressing human rights abuses in other nations.


Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that the Alien Tort Statute did not sanction such litigation, and that “relief for violations of the law of nations occurring outside the United States is barred.”


Conservative and liberal justices were in agreement on the decision, but each side had their own reasoning for doing so. 


According to Justice Roberts, “all the relevant conduct took place outside the United States. And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application,”


The court’s liberals agreed, but had their own reasoning on extraterritoriality.  Justice Stephen G. Breyer stated his belief that the Alien Tort Statute could apply when the defendant’s conduct “substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest, and that includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”


Human rights groups were disappointed by the ruling.


“This decision so severely limited a law that has for decades been a beacon of hope for victims of gross human rights violations,” Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, told The New York Times. “This decision cuts a hole into the web of accountability. Human rights abusers may be rejoicing today, but this is a major setback for their victims.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Aaron Wallechinsky


To Learn More:

Supreme Court Limits Civil Lawsuits Alleging Atrocities Committed Abroad (by Robert Barnes, Washington Post)

Justices Bar Nigerian Human Rights Case From U.S. Courts (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

Kiobel et al v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

Factsheet: The Case Against Shell (Center for Constitutional Rights)


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