Corporations and human rights groups are squaring off in a Supreme Court fight over whether foreign victims of war crimes, killings, and other atrocities can haul multinational companies into American courts and try to prove they were complicit in the abuses and should pay damages.
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.
The justices 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.
The Alien Tort Statute lay unused for most of American history until rights lawyers dusted it off beginning in the late 1970s. Lawsuits have been brought against individuals who allegedly took part in abuses and, more recently, against companies that do business in places where abuses occur and in the United States.
"The corporations have a lot of money and are very attractive targets," said Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich, an expert in international law. "The idea is that they were in bed with the countries."
But the federal appeals court in New York stopped a class-action suit against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, saying the Alien Tort Statute does not allow suits against corporations.
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.
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.
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