High Court ‘Obsessed with Corporate Power’ May Exempt Oil Giant from Human Rights Law

October 1, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The U.S. Supreme Court’s first “blockbuster” case of its new term comes Oct. 10 when it will consider the constitutionality of a university’s race-conscious admissions policy. But as the high court opened the term today it entertained a case that could determine the reach of a 223-year-old law aimed at punishing those who commit human rights violations, and just how responsible corporations are for abetting or committing human rights violations.

The Associated Press reports that after today’s oral argument in the case, the “justices appeared ready to impose new limits on lawsuits brought in U.S. Courts over human rights violations abroad.”

The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, provides the justices the chance to describe in greater detail corporate personhood – in 2010 the Court found that corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals – and whether the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) is still a tool to hold corporations responsible for human rights violations committed outside the country.

In a segment for “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman described Kiobel as one that “will decide if survivors of human rights violations in foreign countries can bring lawsuits against corporations in the U.S. courts.” (See entire segment here or watch video below.)

The case, Goodman continued, centers on a lawsuit that charges Shell’s parent company, Royal Dutch Petroleum, of “complicity in the murder and torture of Nigerian activists in the 1990s who protested the oil company’s “exploration” of the Niger Delta. Many of those activists were executed by the Nigerian government and their families are seeking to hold the oil company accountable pursuant to the ATS. 

Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Goodman that the law has been a significant tool, if not the cornerstone, of human rights litigation for decades. Azmy noted that CCR lawyers relied on the ATS in case lodged in 1979 to help Paraguayan citizens hold a police official responsible for the murder a 17-year-old. Azmy said the ATS had been dormant for about 200 years until that case.

Now in what he called an ominous and unusual turn, the Supreme Court could greatly hobble a major tool for punishing violators of human rights.

“The court is asking,” Azmy said, “whether corporations, simply because of their corporate form are somehow exempt from otherwise binding international human rights obligations and also asking an equally broad question – whether or not this statute could apply to human rights violations that occur outside the United States, as in Nigeria.”

Azmy continued, “And the ominous precedent is Citizens United itself, where the Court reset certain questions and expanded the scope of corporate power more than had been initially contemplated. So you have this remarkable irony where the Court in Citizens United suggested that corporations have First Amendment rights, but here the Court may carve out an exemption from responsibilities for corporate personhood, and that is sort of a shocking development and it could only happen in a Court that seems as it is so obsessed with corporate power.”

For more insight into the case and history of the ATS listen to a new segment of ACSLaw Talk Podcast about Kiobel featuring an interview with Jenny S. Martinez, a law professor at Stanford Law School and an international human rights expert.

[image in post via Doug Beckers]