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Supreme Court to Hear Case Determining Corporate Accountability for Human Rights Violations

Andrea Gittleman, JD on February 27, 2012

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, a case that will decide whether corporations are liable for human rights violations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

The plaintiffs, individual victims, and their family members, allege that Royal Dutch Petroleum was complicit in the Nigerian government’s killings, torture, and other attacks on opponents of the oil company’s activities in the Niger Delta. The ATS allows victims of human rights violations to sue in U.S. courts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has differed from other appellate courts when it exempted corporations from the reach of the ATS.  

The Supreme Court will also hear arguments in a different case to decide whether the Torture Victim Protection Act permits actions against corporations and other defendants that are not persons. The decision of the Supreme Court in these cases will resolve the split in the lower courts and will determine the future of corporate accountability for human rights violations.

PHR has long documented human rights violations, including those facilitated by corporations. Our work in Burma, for example, has documented human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, and forced labor.

In a case similar to Kiobel, the ATS was used by plaintiffs to sue Unocal, an oil company allegedly complicit in acts of forced labor, rape, and killing related to the construction of the company’s pipeline in Burma. The company settled and compensated plaintiffs.

The ATS remains an essential tool for victims to sue violators of human rights violations. The US should not let corporations out of their crimes but instead should press for all those responsible to be held accountable.

A blanket grant of immunity allowing for corporations to commit human rights violations only emboldens them to continue their abusive practices. The Supreme Court should reverse the Second Circuit’s decision in Kiobel and ensure that corporations may be held accountable for egregious human rights violations.

Such a decision would affirm the purpose of the ATS, punish perpetrators of serious crimes, and deter acts of corporate complicity in human rights violations in the future.


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