High Court To Reconsider Major Human Rights Ruling

Mar 5, 2012
Originally published on March 5, 2012 6:24 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it will hear reargument next term in a major human rights case, raising the specter that the justices might reverse a 2004 ruling that allowed some lawsuits in U.S. courts for human rights atrocities committed abroad.

In 2004, the Court, by a 6-to-3 vote, upheld the use of a 1789 U.S. law that allows civil damage suits against foreign individuals accused of committing human rights atrocities abroad. The Alien Tort Statute was enacted by the first Congress and aimed mainly at pirates accused of violating the law of nations. In 2004, the Supreme Court said the law could similarly be used against individuals accused of war crimes, genocide and torture. The court said that in modern times the torturer has become like the pirate and the slave trader of earlier times,"an enemy of all mankind."

That left unresolved whether corporations could face similar suits in U.S. courts, a question that was presented in a case against Shell oil and argued last week in the Supreme Court.

Nigerian citizens who had won political asylum in the U.S. sued Shell, contending it conspired with the Nigerian goverment to suppress opposition, using torture, extra-judicial killing, and genocide.

But during last week's arguments, several justices raised a broader issue--whether U.S. courts have any jurisdiction at all to hear lawsuits for alleged genocide, war crimes, and other abuses abroad. And in a brief order on Monday the Justices ordered the case reargued next term, with that broader question added.

That seemed to suggest at least the possibility that the Court is considering reversing its decision of just eight years ago which upheld such suits against individuals.

The case has been closely watched by both corporations and human rights advocates. Corporations have long complained about what they say is long and costly litigation in the United States over their conduct abroad, while human rights advocates have, for the past three decades sought to hold corporations accountable for atrocities that violate international law, using the Alien Tort Statute to get the cases into U.S.courts.

In the past 20 years, some 120 cases, or about six a year, have been filed against U.S. and multi-nnational corporations for alleged human rights violations in foreign countries.

(Nina Totenberg is NPR's legal affairs correspondent.)

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