The Supreme Court unanimously upheld a federal appeals court’s decision on Wednesday barring foreign citizens from suing corporations in American courts for human rights violations committed abroad.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the 9-0 decision limits the scope of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) of 1789 in rejecting a lawsuit brought against Royal Dutch Petroleum by a group of Nigerian citizens accusing the company of helping their country’s government in a series of human rights violations — including, murder, rape and torture — during the 1990s.
“Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s decision. “If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.”
Katherine Gallagher, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Raw Story on Wednesday that despite ruling out extraterritorial applications of the statute in the case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the high court’s decision still leaves room for questions regarding interpretations of the statute’s scope.
“We’ll see what courts decide is a sufficient link to the U.S.,” Gallagher said. “Whether it’s a U.S. defendant, whether it is upholding the principle that the United States should not be a safe haven for human rights violators.”
Roberts was joined in the opinion by Justices Samuel Alito Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justices Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in judgement only with Roberts. Breyer was joined by Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Though Congress has enacted statutes allowing the U.S. to both prosecute and help victims gain damage in international human rights cases, Breyer said in his opinion, the companies involved in Kiobel did not have enough of a presence on American soil.
“Their shares, like those of many foreign corporations, are traded on the New York Stock Exchange,” Breyer said. “Their only presence in the United States consists of an office in New York City (actually owned by a separate but affiliated company) that helps to explain their business to potential investors.”
[“Oil Field In Desert” on Shutterstock]