Human Rights

  • January 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and founder and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project.  

    January 11 is the 13th anniversary of the opening of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly six years have passed since President Obama announced on his second day in office that he would shutter the detention center within one year. 127 detainees still remain at Guantanamo, 59 have been cleared for release, many for years.  Over these 13 years, Guantanamo has been a black stain on America, a stain that Obama himself has acknowledged. Because of Guantanamo, people around the world have come to question the United States’ position as world leader in human rights and the rule of law.

    Several times during his administration, Obama has said that he wanted to close Guantanamo.  Although he has blamed the Republicans for placing restrictions on his ability to release the men, he has repeatedly signed legislation passed by Congress restricting release of the detainees. He cannot blame the Republicans. He has two more years to be true to his word and close the detention center. However, perhaps something is changing.  Since Election Day, he has released 22 people.  It took him three and one-half years (from May 2011 to November 2014) for him to release another 22 detainees. 

    However, it is easier said than done. Congress has continually prohibited detainees from being brought to the U.S. Until Obama can place the men who will be prosecuted, as well as those who are considered “forever” detainees, in prisons outside Guantanamo he cannot close the prison. If he does not close the prison, it is possible that the next president will be equally stymied, and that Guantanamo will only close when the last detainee has died.

  • April 17, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In another victory for corporate interests, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the scope of a 224-year-old law used by human rights groups and lawyers to sue corporations over human rights violations committed overseas.

    The case involved a lawsuit leveled against Royal Dutch Petroleum, which owns Shell Oil, alleging that the company was complicit in the murder and torture of Nigerians opposed to the company’s exploration of the Niger Delta and thereby in violation of the law of nations. The Nigerian government executed many of the activists -- and their families, represented by human rights lawyers, lodged a lawsuit in federal court pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The 1789 federal law states that federal courts can 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.”

    In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. asked the parties to address, “Whether and under what circumstances the [ATS] allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.”

    The question is not, Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “whether petitioners have stated a proper claim under the ATS, but whether a claim may reach conduct occurring in the territory of a foreign sovereign.”

    Roberts, joined by the high court’s other conservatives, maintained that the ATS “covers actions by aliens for violations of the law of nations, but that does not imply extraterritorial reach – such violations affecting aliens can occur either within or outside the United States.”

    The Court’s conservatives concluded the ATS does not reach extraterritoriality claims, in this case.

    “On these facts, all the relevant conduct took place outside the United States,” Roberts wrote. “And even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application. Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.”

    The high court’s left-of-center justices “believed that the statute could still be used in some cases,” Robert Barnes reported for The Washington Post.

    Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Barnes highlighted, wrote that the ATS should reach conduct by corporations overseas that “substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest, and that includes a distinct interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor (free of civil as well as criminal liability) for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind.”

  • March 5, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    A case that started out as potentially the most significant test of corporate personhood since Citizens United v. FEC may now be decided on other grounds.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered another round of arguments in Kiobel v. Shell Petroleum, this time on the question of whether the 200-year-old Alien Tort Statute applies to human rights violations that occur outside the United States.

    The ATS and another related statute, the Torture Victim Protection Act, have been used to hold corporations accountable when they commit or are complicit in human rights abuses that include genocide, war crimes and forced labor.

    The Supreme Court initially granted review of Kiobel on the question of whether the corporate entities themselves could be held accountable.

    But as Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr points out, a ruling on the broader issue of whether U.S. courts can review actions arising elsewhere would “potentially impose more sweeping limits on lawsuits, shielding corporate officers as well as the companies themselves.”

  • February 23, 2012
    Guest Post

    By John Knox, a law professor at Wake Forest University School of Law and a member scholar at the Center for Progressive Reform. This commentary is cross-posted at CPRBlog.


    On February 28, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, a case with far-reaching implications for efforts to hold corporations accountable when they commit or are complicit in abuses of human rights. 

    For over fifty years, Shell has extracted oil from Nigeria, causing great harm to the environment and people of the Niger delta. The Ogoni people living in the delta protested Shell’s operations, and in response the Nigerian government harshly oppressed them. Most infamously, in 1995 it executed the author Ken Saro-Wiwa, together with eight other leaders of the protests.     

    Esther Kiobel, the widow of one of the executed men, as well as other affected Ogoni, sued Shell in U.S. federal court, claiming that it aided and abetted the Nigerian government in its violations of human rights law. The plaintiffs relied on the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law enacted by the First Congress, in 1789, which gives federal courts jurisdiction over claims by aliens arising from torts committed in violation of international law. In 2004, in Sosa v Alvarez-Machain, the Supreme Court affirmed that the ATS still provides jurisdiction for international tort claims, but it cautioned federal courts not to recognize claims “for violations of any international law norm with less definite content and acceptance among civilized nations than the historical paradigms” familiar when the law was enacted. As an example of such a historical paradigm, the Court cited the long-standing prohibition against piracy. 

    Foreign plaintiffs have used the ATS to accuse corporations of committing grave human rights abuses, including genocide, war crimes, and forced labor.  A few of the suits have resulted in payments, including a 2009 settlement by Shell of another claim arising from its Nigerian operations. In 2010, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Esther Kiobel’s claim on the sweeping ground that corporations could never be liable for violations of customary international law, because customary international law never imposes any obligations on corporations. In short order, the Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits rejected the Second Circuit decision, holding that plaintiffs can sue corporations under the Alien Tort Statute. 

    Last fall, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Second Circuit decision. Its ruling will be its first ATS decision since Sosa, and it will determine whether the many other pending ATS suits against corporations may continue. It’s possible that the Court will decide the case on grounds that allow it to avoid addressing corporate duties under international law. But if the Supreme Court does take on international law, as seems likely, what should it decide? Is the Second Circuit correct that international norms do not prohibit corporate abuses of human rights? 

  • January 17, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Jacob A.C. Remes, an Assistant Professor of Public Affairs and History at SUNY Empire State College. Mr. Remes is also David Carliner’s grandson.


    One should never mind being called an agitator, David Carliner liked to say. In a washing machine, it’s the agitator that gets the dirt out.  By the time Carliner – the namesake of ACS’s $10,000 public interest law prize – was 25, he had agitated himself into jail (for protesting in front of the German embassy when he was 16), onto police watch lists (for attending a party with interracial dancing), out of college (for organizing a high school protest), out of an apartment (for talking politics with the African-American maid), out of law school (after he was arrested again for passing out handbills), and onto a secret list of American citizens to be detained in camps “in case of emergency” (for the total of all these political activities).

    For all his bravery as a student activist – he traveled to every county in Virginia organizing against militarism and white supremacy, which put him at considerable risk of physical danger – it was later, as a lawyer, when Carliner really started getting the dirt out. In the 1950s, he became one of the country’s first immigration lawyers, quickly realizing that he could use his practice not only to represent immigrant workers and dissidents, but also in his battles to liberalize American society.

    Perhaps his most famous case began in 1952, when a Chinese seaman Ham Say Naim married a white woman named Ruby and applied for U.S. citizenship. Two years later, while his naturalization was still pending, Ruby sought an annulment, arguing that Virginia’s antimiscegenation law meant their marriage was invalid.  Carliner took the case to the Supreme Court, daring the justices – in the year after Brown v. Board of Educationto recognize state antimiscegenation statutes as unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the court ducked the issue and allowed the case to be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court, which found that the state had the power to “regulate marriage … so that it shall not have a mongrel breed of citizens.”