WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court said Monday it will consider a lawsuit accusing Royal Dutch Shell of human rights abuses, a case that could make companies liable for torture or genocide committed overseas.
The plaintiffs — relatives of seven Nigerians killed by the country’s former military regime — sued the Anglo-Dutch energy giant and other firms for apparently enlisting the government to suppress resistance to oil exploration in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.
The case will assess the potential liability of corporations — including multinationals with a US presence — under the Alien Tort Statute, a US law dating back to 1789 which scholars say was meant to assure foreign governments that the United States would help prevent breaches of international law.
The 12 Nigerian plaintiffs charge Shell with “complicity in human rights violations committed against them in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta in Nigeria between 1992 and 1995,” according to their complaint put before the court.
“These violations included torture, extra-judicial executions and crimes against humanity.”
It said Shell “aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing human rights abuses,” and added: “For the victims of human rights violations such cases often provide the only opportunity to obtain any remedy for their suffering.”
The Kiobel versus Royal Dutch Petroleum case will be heard by the high court alongside a new torture case, Mohamad versus Rajoun, which involves the family of an American who died in 1995 from torture injuries inflicted by Palestinian Authority officers.
A US appeals court in New York ruled in both cases that corporations or political organizations were immune to such liability.
The Supreme Court’s 2011-2012 term began this month, and the nine justices are expected to issue their decision on the cases by the end of the session next June or July.
The Kiobel case was part of a broader set of legal complaints by Nigeria’s Ogoni people, who argued that Royal Dutch Shell was complicit in murder, torture and other abuses committed by the country’s former military government.
The victims included Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others executed in 1995 in what plaintiffs said was a campaign of repression backed by the oil giant.
Saro-Wiwa had led a non-violent campaign to protest environmental destruction and abuses against the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta before he was hanged along with other activists after his trial in a military court.
In 2009 Shell agreed to pay out $15.5 million to relatives of the victims, in what it hoped would be the end of a long legal battle and avoidance of a potentially embarrassing court case.
Shell maintained its innocence throughout, saying the settlement was a “humanitarian gesture” to help the Ogoni, but human rights lawyers in New York two years ago hailed the agreement as a precedent for holding Shell and other oil giants responsible for activities in countries with repressive governments.
That case did not mark the end of Shell’s legal troubles. Esther Kiobel, wife of Ogoni activist Barinem Kiobel, who was executed along with Saro-Wiwa, did not participate in the settlement and pressed on with her suit.
Shell’s lawyers argued that the case is “a poor vehicle” for address human rights issues.
“The essence of Kiobel’s complaint is that Dutch and English holding companies should have to answer in a US court for acts committed in Nigeria by the Nigerian government, allegedly with assistance from their indirect Nigerian subsidiary,” the company said in its brief.