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US Supreme Court to Weigh Foreigners' Suits vs. Corporations

- Common Dreams staff

The US Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday 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.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his colleagues were executed by the Nigerian Government on 10 November 1995 following their campaign against the devastating environmental impacts of oil companies - including Shell - in the Niger Delta. Corporations and human rights groups are squaring off over whether foreign victims of war crimes, killings and other atrocities can sue multinational companies in American courts.

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The Associated Press reports:

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. [...]

Business interests argue that the legal tactic also will discourage investment in developing countries and they point out 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 claim 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 an American 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 United States 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 $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 U.S. 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 old racial apartheid system in South Africa.

Those companies, other than Chiquita, are among 15 multinational businesses that are supporting Shell in the Supreme Court.

In a second case being argued Tuesday, the justices will consider whether the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992 can only be invoked against individuals, not organizations or corporations.

The sons and widow of Azzam Rahim have filed a civil lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Palestinian-born Rahim was a naturalized U.S. citizen who was beaten and died in the custody of Palestinian intelligence officers in Jericho in 1995. Three officers were jailed for their role in the case, according to a State Department report.

But when Rahim's relatives sought money damages for his death, the federal appeals court in Washington said they could not use the 1992 law to go after the Palestinian organizations. The law may be applied only to "natural persons," the appeals court said.

Some supporters of the lawsuits have drawn a link to the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case, which said corporations have the same rights as people to speak and spend freely to influence elections.

But if the court sides with businesses in these cases, it would be saying "corporations are not persons for the purpose of enforcing human rights violations. It's really a weird paradox," said Peter Weiss, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the first lawyer to win an appeals court ruling backing the use of the Alien Tort Statute to sue over human rights violations.

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