February 28, 2012, Washington D.C. – Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that will determine whether corporations can be sued in U.S. courts for their complicity in torture, crimes against humanity, and other serious international law violations committed abroad. Human rights attorneys in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. argued that it is a well-recognized principle of both domestic and international law that corporations can be held liable for egregious conduct and that such matters can be litigated in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The statute allows non-U.S. citizens to sue in U.S. courts for serious human rights abuses and other international law violations. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of 11 human rights organizations and two international scholars showing how that liability is recognized as a general principle of law.
“The question before the Court is ultimately a simple one: will multi-national corporations enjoy impunity when they engage in the most egregious conduct, like torture, in far corners of the world, or will they be held to account for their actions?” said Katherine Gallagher, a Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney. “The Supreme Court, which found that corporations enjoy broad rights two terms ago, is now being called upon to recognize that they also are bound by responsibilities under the law."
Kiobel was filed on behalf of Nigerian activists and their families from the Ogoni area of the Niger Delta who, in the 1990s, opposed the environmental degradation caused by Shell on their land. In 1994, nine activists known as the Ogoni 9 were detained, tortured, and tried by a special military tribunal. Human rights groups and political leaders around the world condemned what they say were spurious charges and trial procedures that violated international fair trial standards. The Ogoni 9 were convicted of murder and executed ten days after the trial. In Kiobel, the plaintiffs allege that Shell bribed witnesses to give false testimony and otherwise cooperated with the special tribunal.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, holding that the ATS could not be used to sue corporations for violations of international law. The dismissal means that Shell’s role in the crimes alleged in the lawsuit would not be examined. Judge Pierre Leval wrote separately, strongly disagreeing with the majority that the ATS is not applicable to corporations. “[T]he majority opinion deals a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights,” wrote Leval.
“Ultimately, the question comes down to whether one’s notion of free trade includes the freedom to commit or acquiesce in torture, rape, slave labor and extrajudicial executions as ordinary attributes of doing business,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Vice President Peter Weiss. “If the Supreme Court agrees with this view, we will have a situation where corporations are persons for the purpose of making unlimited contributions to political campaigns, but not for the purpose of being held to account for human rights violations.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights has joined EarthRights International and the Human Rights Litigation and International Advocacy Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School in the coalition Corporate Accountability Now
to call for corporations to be held responsible in U.S. courts for violations of international human rights law.
For more information on CCR's work on the case, visit our case page
for full transcript of the argument.