Sunday, February 26, 2012

Supreme Court to Hear 2 Human Rights Cases


17 October 2011

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a pair of cases on whether corporations and political groups may be sued in American courts for complicity in human rights abuses abroad.

The Supreme Court has offered only limited and tentative guidance on the general question of what sorts of human rights lawsuits may be brought in federal courts in the United States. The lower courts in both cases drew a clean line, saying that only individuals and not artificial entities like corporations are subject to being sued.

One of the cases was brought by 12 Nigerians, who said that oil companies affiliated with Royal Dutch Shell had aided and abetted the Nigerian government in torture and executions in the Ogoni region of the country in the early 1990s. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal district courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

The meaning of that language is not obvious, and the law itself was largely ignored until the 1980s, when federal courts started to apply it in international human rights cases. A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Sosa v. Álvarez-Machain, left the door open to some claims under the law, as long as they involved violations of international norms with “definite content and acceptance among civilized nations.”

A footnote in that decision instructed lower courts to consider a related question, too: “whether international law extends the scope of liability for a violation of a given norm to the perpetrator being sued, if the defendant is a private actor such as a corporation or individual.”

With that prompting, a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled that corporations were not subject to the law.

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