Justice and Redress: Holding Corporations Accountable for Human Rights Abuses

Today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that corporate entities can be held accountable for human rights violations committedabroad. At the heart of the debate is the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), amechanism through which non-US citizens can bring lawsuits in US federal courtfor acts committed abroad that violate international law. In 2004, the USSupreme Court established the categories of claims that can be brought underthe ATCA, but the court never defined who can be sued under the Act. The generalrule is that both states and private individuals can be held responsible forinternational law violations, but the question of corporate liability still remainsunclear. This lack of guidance resulted in the lower federal courts coming todifferent conclusions.  The recent rulingby the Ninth Circuit is directly contrary to the decision reached by the SecondCircuit in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. The Kiobel case isslated for Supreme Court review in order to resolve the uncertainties in thisarea.

In Kiobel, a groupof Nigerian citizens filed suit in federal court claiming that they weresubjected to torture, rape, and beatings by the Nigerian government becausethey protested against oil exploration. The victims wanted to hold the RoyalDutch Petroleum Company legally responsible for the abuses they suffered becausethe oil company provided money, weapons, and food to the perpetrators. TheSecond Circuit dismissed the lawsuit, indicating that corporations are immunefrom suit for international law violations. The Supreme Court must now decidewhether or not the oil company is liable for its complicity in the human rightsabuses inflicted by the Nigerian government – a decision that will ultimately setthe standard on whether or not corporate entities can be sued under the ATCA.

International human rights law is designed to promote andprotect human rights for all people. The expectation that US corporations shouldbe immune from lawsuits does not, and cannot, supersede the right of people tobe free from torture and ill treatment. Failure to hold corporationsaccountable for their human rights violations will result in a growing climateof impunity, especially among multi-national corporations operating out of thedeveloping world.

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