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Justice and Redress: Holding Corporations Accountable for Human Rights Abuses

Christy Carnegie Fujio, JD, MA, and Jessica Kurtz on October 26, 2011

Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that corporate entities can be held accountable for human rights violations committed abroad. At the heart of the debate is the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a mechanism through which non-US citizens can bring lawsuits in US federal court for acts committed abroad that violate international law. In 2004, the US Supreme Court established the categories of claims that can be brought under the ATCA, but the court never defined who can be sued under the Act. The general rule is that both states and private individuals can be held responsible for international law violations, but the question of corporate liability still remains unclear. This lack of guidance resulted in the lower federal courts coming to different conclusions.  The recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit is directly contrary to the decision reached by the Second Circuit in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. The Kiobel case is slated for Supreme Court review in order to resolve the uncertainties in this area.

In Kiobel, a group of Nigerian citizens filed suit in federal court claiming that they were subjected to torture, rape, and beatings by the Nigerian government because they protested against oil exploration. The victims wanted to hold the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company legally responsible for the abuses they suffered because the oil company provided money, weapons, and food to the perpetrators. The Second Circuit dismissed the lawsuit, indicating that corporations are immune from suit for international law violations. The Supreme Court must now decide whether or not the oil company is liable for its complicity in the human rights abuses inflicted by the Nigerian government – a decision that will ultimately set the standard on whether or not corporate entities can be sued under the ATCA.

International human rights law is designed to promote and protect human rights for all people. The expectation that US corporations should be immune from lawsuits does not, and cannot, supersede the right of people to be free from torture and ill treatment. Failure to hold corporations accountable for their human rights violations will result in a growing climate of impunity, especially among multi-national corporations operating out of the developing world.

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