WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a pair of cases on whether corporations and political groups may be sued in U.S. 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 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 U.S. 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. Alvarez-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 Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, ruled that corporations were not subject to the law.
Judge Jose A. Cabranes, writing for the majority, said international jurisprudence since the Nuremberg trials after World War II allows human rights violations of international law to be “charged against states and against individual men and women but not against juridical persons such as corporations.”
In a concurrence, Judge Pierre N. Leval said the case should have been dismissed on the narrower ground that the plaintiffs had not plausibly asserted that the oil companies had assisted the Nigerian government for the purpose of perpetrating human rights abuses, as opposed to obtaining protection for their operations.