Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum – a Blow to Human Rights?
Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a decision on the case Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. I was actually in the room when the court heard this case, which involves a group of Nigerians attempting to sue multinational oil companies for human rights abuses in Nigeria.
The case involves the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which is one of the oldest laws in the United States. People debate its original purpose, but lately it’s been used a lot to sue corporations that commit abuses abroad.
This particular case is awkward, though. It has foreign plaintiffs, foreign defendants, and occurred on foreign soil.
While it might seem obvious, then, that it has no place being tried here in the United States, that’s not exactly true. Cases like this have been tried here under the ATS many times before, and the multinational corporations in question definitely have offices in the US.
But the court ruled the case could not be decided here, as having an office in the US doesn’t mean you have a substantial presence here. They felt it was too disconnected to US interests to count under the ATS.
Human rights advocates feel the court’s decision is a huge step backward:
1) It would appear the court has decided only to allow ATS cases when corporations commit acts in the United States or on the high seas. Abuses committed abroad would no longer count, even when committed entirely by US corporations.
2) If these cases can’t be brought here, where can foreign victims of US or multinational corporations go?
These corporations are often based in countries either unwilling to try them or biased towards them. The victims’ countries often have atrocious human rights records. So, sadly, plaintiffs find themselves desperate for a court in which to be heard.
In the case of these 12 Nigerians, they claim the 3 oil companies contributed to the military’s suppression of local residents through torture and execution. If what they say is true, the victims’ families deserve justice.
Perhaps eventually we’ll figure out a way for them to have it.