In a recently published op-ed, Peter Weiss of the New York Times discusses the many implications and potential ramifications of an upcoming case to be heard by the Supreme Court. According to Weiss, the justices are essentially being asked to decide 'whether the corporations to which they have been extending the rights of individuals should also be held accountable for crimes against human rights, just as individuals are.' The precedent for the case begins with a 1980 decision regarding an obscure law enacted in 1789, the Alien Tort Statue, which 'has been interpreted to mean that foreigners who commit heinous crimes abroad in violation of international law can be held accountable in the United States if they are present or do business here.' Since this decision, dozens of successful alien tort claims have allowed victims of egregious human rights violations abroad that were supported or sanctioned by corporations to seek justice in the U.S. However, in a September 2010 a U.S. Second Circuit court ruled in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum that only individuals, and not corporations, can be sued under the Alien Tort Statue.
The plaintiffs in the case, members of the Ogoni people of the Niger's delta, have accused Royal Dutch Shell of assisting the Nigerian government with acts of torture and other crimes against humanity. The case has moved to the Supreme Court and will be decided on Tuesday. As opined by Weiss, the judges face a tough decision: 'whether to accept an argument that, in effect, leaves corporations less culpable than individuals are for human rights violations committed abroad — or whether to hold that if a 200-year-old law can be used to hold individual violators to account, it can be used against corporate violators as well.' Read the full op-ed here, with more details about the case and its history.