Corporations and human rights groups are squaring off in a US Supreme Court fight over whether foreign victims of war crimes, killings and other atrocities can haul multinational companies into US courts and try to prove they were complicit in the abuses and should pay damages.
The rights groups say a 223-year-old law gives foreigners such as Nigerian-born Charles Wiwa the right to try to hold businesses accountable for the roles they play in atrocities. Energy and mining companies have been among the most frequent targets of these lawsuits in recent years following efforts by the military in Indonesia, Nigeria and elsewhere to clamp down on protests against oil and gas exploration and development.
The justices will hear arguments today over the reach of the Alien Tort Statute and a 20-year-old law that allows victims of torture to pursue civil lawsuits against the responsible individuals.
The Alien Tort Statute lay unused for most of US history until rights lawyers dusted it off in the late 1970s. Lawsuits have been brought against individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, against companies that do business in places where abuses occur and in the US.
“The corporations have a lot of money and are very attractive targets,” said Northwestern University law professor Eugene -Kontorovich, an expert in international law. “The idea is that they were in bed with the countries.”
However, the federal appeals court in New York stopped a class-action suit against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, saying the Alien Tort Statute does not allow suits against corporations.
Business interests say that the legal tactic also will discourage investment in developing countries and they that they uniformly condemn human rights violations.
Wiwa, 44, fled Nigeria in 1996 following a crackdown on protests against Shell’s oil operations in the Niger Delta. Wiwa and other natives of the oil-rich Ogoni region say Shell was eager to stop protests in the area and was complicit in Nigerian government actions that included fatal shootings, rapes, beatings, arrests and property destruction.
He said a US court is the only place the Ogonis can seek accountability.
“Nigeria gets so much money from oil. There is no way the company will be held liable for anything in courts in Nigeria,” Wiwa said.
He now lives in Chicago, having been allowed into the US as a political refugee.
In the most notorious incident of the crackdown, Nigeria’s military dictatorship hanged author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists, sparking international outrage.
In 2009, Shell paid US$15.5 million to settle a separate lawsuit filed in New York under the Alien Tort Statute and alleging that the oil giant was complicit in the executions of Saro-Wiwa and the others. The -company did not admit it did anything wrong. Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary ended its operations in the Ogoni region in 1993, although a pipeline still passes through the area.
Other cases pending in US courts seek to hold accountable Chiquita Brands International for its relationship with paramilitary groups in Colombia; Exxon and Chevron for abuses in Indonesia and Nigeria respectively; Britain-based mining concern Rio Tinto for allegedly aiding the Papua New Guinea government in a civil war; and several companies for their role in the old racial apartheid system in South Africa.