The US Supreme Court AP PHOTO
The US Supreme Court AP PHOTO

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on whether an obscure U.S. law can be used to hold a multinational corporation accountable for human rights violations.

The justices will hear arguments Tuesday from oil giant Royal Dutch Shell and a group of Nigerian activists who say the company was complicit in a government crackdown against them that left at least nine people dead.

At issue is a law passed more than 200 years ago, and, until recently, hardly ever used. The Alien Tort Statute is meant to allow courts to hear cases from foreigners for violations of international laws and U.S. treaties.

But analyst Daniel Gorfine told VOA the law is ambiguous about what it is supposed to cover. And he says there is disagreement about whether international law can be applied to corporations.

“Historically, international law itself has only governed relationships between states. In more recent history, it was applied to individuals for certain really heinous acts that all countries agreed should constitute a violation of international law. But what remains kind of an open question is whether corporations themselves can be held responsible for wrongdoing under international law. On the one hand, you’ve got those who argue that corporations have never been held responsible under international law for wrongdoing. On the other hand, you have those who suggest that international law is at least permissive, or does allow for enforcing of corporate responsibility. Or that in any event, we should apply US domestic law which commonly holds corporations responsible for wrongdoing.”

He says the case is being closely watched by both human rights victims and activists as well as by academics and corporations because it will set an important precedent.

“The real question here is depending on the outcome of the case, it could have a real impact on how international human rights cases are litigated, in some respects for better or worse.”

Shell’s lawyers have previously said there should not be corporate liability in such cases because, if so, companies may become less inclined to work in countries where human rights abuses regularly take place.

A similar case filed by relatives of killed protest leader Ken Saro-Wiwa resulted in a $15.5 million settlement by Shell in 2009 for the plaintiffs and Ogoni people. Shell officials vigorously denied any involvement in the killings in Nigeria or in any human rights abuses, but said they acknowledged that plaintiffs and others had suffered.

The Supreme Court decision, expected in June, will only determine whether the case can proceed in U.S. court.

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