The U.S. Supreme Court Monday agreed to take on two cases to determine whether corporations and political organizations can be sued in U.S. courts for abetting human rights abuses in other countries.
In both cases, lower-court judges have ruled that only individuals -- not corporations or political groups -- can be held liable for assisting in state-sanctioned torture or killing.
One case was brought by 12 Nigerian nationals against two oil companies that, through a subsidiary, allegedly assisted the Nigerian government in sending armed soldiers to violently crack down on protests against exploration in the Ogoni region in 1993 and 1994.
The Nigerians sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows aliens to bring lawsuits in American courts for tort violation of the law of nations or U.S. treaties.
The other case was brought by the family of a Palestinian-born U.S. citizen, Azzam Rahim, who was abducted, tortured and murdered during a trip to the West Bank in 1995. A U.S. Department of State report later said that Rahim died in a jail while in the custody of Palestinian Authority intelligence officials, according to court filings.
That suit was brought against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization under a 1992 law called the Torture Victim Protection Act.
Both cases were tossed out in lower courts.
Other companies have faced such lawsuits for their dealings in other countries, including oil company Unocal, for its alleged complicity in forced labor of Burmese people to build a pipeline; DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz Argentina, accused of collaborating with state forces during the country's deadly Dirty War that targeted leftists; and Nokia Siemens Networks, for allegedly helping Iran detain an Iranian journalist.
A group of nine international law and human rights experts filed a brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Nigerians case that criticized an appellate court decision in favor of the oil companies being sued.
The failure to hold corporations liable for their torts, their filing said, contradicts the substance and history of international law.
When Corporations Are Not People
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, anchored in New York City, was split in its September 2010 decision to prevent the Nigerian nationals from suing Dutch Petroleum Company, Shell Transport and Trading Company, and their subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.
The companies were accused of providing food, transportation, use of property and compensation to the Nigerian forces violently suppressing residents.
While the judges noted that corporations, under domestic law, are considered persons, the issue in the case dealt with customary international law, that is, universally accepted rules that the nations treat as binding in their dealings with one another, according to Judge José Alberto Cabranes' majority opinion.
Cabranes added that the Nuremberg trials following World War II set the standard for holding individuals liable for war crimes, rather than entities.
No corporation has ever been subject to any form of liability (whether civil, criminal, or otherwise) under the customary international law of human right, he wrote.
But Judge Pierre N. Leval, however, called the opinion a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights.
He agreed that no corporation has ever been held liable for international violations of human rights. But he argued that international law has never taken a position on civil liability for corporations, leaving that matter up to each nation.
The majority's opinion, he wrote, nullifies the intention of international law to leave the question of civil liability to be decided separately by each nation.
For the case of the U.S. citizen tortured and killed by Palestinian Authority officials, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided in March that the torture law at issue states that individuals can be sued.
Without U.S. Congress providing additional meaning to the word, the judges had to use its ordinary meaning, which is a natural person and not corporations or organizations.