Last week in a landmark case the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a federal appeals court, ruled in the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. that companies can not be subject to U.S. lawsuits by foreigners seeking damages for human rights violations under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (28 U.S.C.Section 1350). In its decision the court ruled that the Alien Tort Statute gives U.S. courts jurisdiction only over alleged violations of international law by individuals and not alleged violations by corporations. The decision dismisses the claims brought by a group of Nigerians that Shell aided in the torture and murder of dissidents in Nigeria during the 1990s. The full text of the court decision can be found at: (http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/836d860b-2d6f-4bdd-9175-6b8285fa7bfe/5/doc/06-4800-cv_opn.pdf#xml=http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/836d860b-2d6f-4bdd-9175-6b8285fa7bfe/5/hilite/)
Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote in his majority opinion that the Alien Tort Statute only allows U.S. courts to hear death and injury claims, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, by non-U.S. citizens connected to violations of international law.
In the dissenting opinion of Circuit Judge Pierre N. Leval he wrote that he agreed that the case should be dismissed but disagreed that the Alien Tort Statute applies only to individuals. He stated that the plaintiffs didn’t properly claim Shell intended to cause the Nigerian government to violate human rights. Judge Leval wrote that the majority opinion “deals a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights.”
This is a case of major impact. However, this may not be the last word on the Alien Tort Statute because the decision can still be reconsidered by the full U.S. Circuit of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Eventually I think this case and other similar cases will eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.