U.S. Supreme Court

Human rights groups condemn Supreme Court decision tossing Alien Tort suit by Nigerian nationals

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a group of Nigerians living in the United States who sought to hold oil companies accountable for alleged human rights violations in Nigeria through a lawsuit in U.S. courts.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion (PDF) upholding dismissal of the suit, brought under the Alien Tort Statute. The law recognizes suits by aliens for certain international law violations, but it does not expressly cover conduct in foreign countries.

Roberts said there is a presumption that the law does not reach human rights violations committed in other countries. In this case, Roberts said, the plaintiffs were unable to overcome the presumption.

“Even where the claims touch and concern the territory of the United States, they must do so with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application,” he wrote. “Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If Congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required.”

Nan Aaron, president of the Alliance for Justice, issued a statement calling the decision “a blow to decades of human rights law.” Human Rights First president and CEO Elisa Massimino said the decision “cuts a hole into the web of accountability. Human rights abusers may be rejoicing today, but this is a major setback for their victims, who often look to the United States for justice when all else fails.”

Three of the four justices who joined Roberts’ opinion wrote or joined separate concurrences. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said in his concurrence that the opinion leaves open many significant questions regarding the reach of the Alien Tort Statute. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., in an opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with Roberts’ “touch and concern” formulation, but argued for a broader standard.

The court’s four liberal justices concurred in the judgment only. The opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested a different test for jurisdiction under the statute that allows suits when the defendant’s conduct “substantially and adversely affects an important American national interest.” Breyer said the Nigerian case did not meet his proposed standard.

Roberts cited historical incidents to bolster his conclusion that the law was not intended to overcome the presumption against application to conduct in another country.

Shortly before the law was enacted in 1789, there were two “notorious episodes” involving violation of the law of nations, Roberts said. Both involved the rights of ambassadors, and both occurred in the United States. Soon after its passage, the law was invoked in two cases, both involving conduct in U.S. territory. One involved the seizure of a slave vessel, and another a seizure in U.S. waters. Piracy was another problem well known to Congress at the time, and it usually occurred on the high seas beyond any country’s jurisdiction.

“There is here is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the United States a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of international norms,” Roberts wrote.

The case is Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court Appears Ready to Limit Reach of Alien Tort Law”

ABAJournal.com: “US Courts Can Hear Claims for Human Rights Abuses in Other Countries, Says ABA Amicus Brief”

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court Takes on Another Broad Controversy, Orders Alien Tort Rearguments”

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