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Government sides with oil companies accused of human rights atrocities

In a pending Supreme Court case involving human rights abuses allegedly committed overseas by British and Dutch oil companies, the Obama administration came out last week on the side of corporate interests.

This past Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, arguing that U.S. courts:
should not create a cause of action that challenges the actions of a foreign sovereign in its own territory, where the [defendant] is a foreign corporation of a third country that allegedly aided and abetted the foreign sovereign’s conduct.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case this past February, but just a week later, ordered re-briefing and re-argument on a new, broader question: “Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute allows Courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.”

In Kiobel, a group of Nigerian plaintiffs, many of whom have received refugee status in the United States, sued the oil companies for enlisting members of the Nigerian military to torture and kill environmental activists in the Ogoni Region of Nigeria. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, an 18th century law allowing suits to be brought for egregious international law violations in U.S. federal courts.

Initially, the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the human rights victims. Even though the specific question before the court has changed, it is difficult to resolve how in a few short months, the government has demonstrably altered its position 180 degrees.

Marco Simons of EarthRights International exposed the absurdity of the government’s position. On the one hand, the government concedes that suits against foreign actors concerning foreign activity can be brought in U.S. courts for several reasons that benefit a corporation’s bottom line. However, the government is opposed to U.S. courts hearing suits alleging the most heinous of crimes: crimes against humanity, torture, and extrajudicial killing.

For human rights victims who will never receive justice through their domestic courts, the ATS could stand as a symbol of the American judicial system’s concern for universal fairness and justice. But if the Court sides with the oil companies, the federal courthouse doors will be shut to victims of human rights atrocities committed abroad. It is disappointing that the government has decided to support this potential restriction of individual victims’ access to justice.