The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Supreme Court Urged to Review Ruling that Shields Corporations from Human Rights Suits

Corporations Must Not Be Granted Immunity for Egregious Conduct Argue International Human Rights Groups and Experts


A group of international human rights organizations filed an amicus brief in the United States Supreme Court in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum in which they urge the Court to review an appeals court finding that corporations cannot be held liable for international human rights violations in U.S. courts.

Kiobel is a lawsuit that was filed in 2002 by members of the Ogoni community in Nigeria for serious human rights violations suffered in the 1990s. Plaintiffs alleged that Royal Dutch Shell aided and abetted and were otherwise complicit in violations including extrajudicial killing, arbitrary arrest and detention, and crimes against humanity. It is a companion case to Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which was settled by ten separate plaintiffs in 2009 who were represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and others.

Kiobel was brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law that since 1980 has been hailed as a powerful tool for victims of human rights abuses to hold their tormentors accountable for violations of international law. Since the mid-1990s, ATS suits, which previously had been brought against individuals, began being filed against corporations.

Last September, a split panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the statute does not apply to corporations, but only to individuals. This decision was at odds with rulings from the Eleventh Circuit, and is now also at odds with decisions from the Seventh Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit, which in the last week ruled that corporations can be held liable under the ATS. In the D.C. case, the majority held that corporations, in this case, EXXON Mobil for operations in Indonesia, are not immune "for torts based on heinous conduct allegedly committed by its agents in violation of the law of nations."

The international human rights groups, led by CCR, which litigated the groundbreaking case Filartiga v. Pena-Irala that resurrected the ATS, focus their brief on a comparative look at how legal systems from around the world address the issue of corporate legal liability. Their analysis reveals that while the form of liability may differ between systems, there exists a universal recognition - a general principle of law - that with corporate personhood comes corporate legal responsibility.

"Corporations, like individuals, cannot and should not expect the benefits of legal rights without any obligation to act within the bounds of the law," said Katherine Gallagher, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "This is a general principle of law that is respected in legal systems worldwide. The Supreme Court is being called upon to make it clear that the United States will not become an outlier and an enabler of corporate immunity, especially in cases involving the most egregious acts. The Second Circuit's decision undermines fundamental concepts of accountability and leaves victims of the most serious human rights violations without a remedy."

CCR is joined in its brief by organizations including the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and international scholars Olivier De Schutter and Florian Jessberger. Their brief is one of five amicus briefs to be filed in support of the petitioners' application for the Supreme Court to review the Second Circuit's decision.

Click here to read the amicus brief.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CCR is committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

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