Corporate Court Grants Cert. in Human Rights Cases

The United States Supreme Court today granted cert. in two cases that affect the rights of individuals seeking to hold corporations and other organizations responsible for human rights violations.

In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, twelve Nigerian nationals sued Royal Dutch Petroleum and two other oil companies for aiding and abetting human rights abuses committed in the Ogoni Region of Nigeria in the early 1990s. To protest the environmental damage caused by the defendants' oil exploration and production in the Ogoni region, Nigerian residents organized the “Movement for Survival of Ogoni People.” Plaintiffs allege that defendants then enlisted the Nigerian government to suppress the Ogoni activists.

In 1993 and 1994, the Nigerian military was involved in a variety of human rights abuses – shooting, killing, beating, raping, and arresting residents, as well as destroying and looting property – allegedly with the assistance of defendants.

To obtain compensation, and to deter future corporate wrongdoing, plaintiffs brought their claims under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), alleging that defendants had aided and abetted the Nigerian government in violating the law of nations, including extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced exile, property destruction, and violation of the rights to life, liberty, security, and association.

The District Court dismissed some of the plaintiffs’ claims, finding that they were not established clearly enough under customary international law, while permitting the remainder to proceed. Both parties appealed the court’s ruling. Rather than decide the issues that had been certified for appeal, in a 2-1 decision, a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed all claims by finding that corporations are not liable under the ATS.

The Alien Tort Statute, which was enacted by the first Congress in 1789, establishes jurisdiction for torts “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Considering the limited jurisdiction of the ATS, the Second Circuit majority concluded that, while states and individual men and women have been held liable for human rights violations, corporations have not. The majority acknowledged that corporations are generally considered by U.S. courts to be “persons,” with corresponding rights and liabilities. However, it insisted that liability under domestic law – including under the laws of “most or even all ‘civilized nations’” – does not create a norm of customary international law.

As Judge Pierre Leval, who concurred only in the judgment, stated in a separate opinion, the majority “deal[t] a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights” by creating a rule “[w]ithout any support in either the precedents or the scholarship of international law. In Judge Leval's view, the majority was wrong to derive a lack of precedent for the civil compensatory liability of corporations based on the lack of jurisdiction for international criminal tribunals.

Furthermore, the court deemed the matter a jurisdictional question, which the court may address on its own at any point, rather a question of the merits of the case, which is waived if not raised by the defendants. The Second Circuit’s holding created a split among the circuits, as the Eleventh Circuit has held that corporations can be held liable under ATS just like any private party. The issue of corporate liability under the ATS is also pending in the D.C., Seventh, and Ninth Circuits.

The Supreme Court will also hear argument in the related case of Mohamad v. Rajoun. In that case, the family of a U.S. citizen, who allegedly died of injuries sustained during torture by officers of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, sued under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). The D.C. Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims on the grounds that the TVPA – which establishes the civil liability of “individuals” – applies only to natural persons, not to organizations. If the Supreme Court affirms the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the defendants in each of these cases, it will allow corporations and other organizations to act with impunity to perpetrate crimes against humanity.