12 Nigerians have lost a major battle to hold Royal Dutch Shell Plc, accountable for human rights abuses in Nigeria, as the United State’s Supreme Court, yesterday, ruled that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to hear suits against foreign corporations accused of aiding in human rights abuses abroad.
The 12 Nigerians represented by Esther Kiobel, had in 2002 filed a suit on behalf of victims of a violent crackdown who were protesting in Nigeria between 1992 and 1995, including her husband, Barinem, who was executed in 1995.
In one of its biggest human rights cases in years, the justices ruled unanimously that a court in New York could not hear claims made by 12 Nigerians who accused Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell Plc of complicity in a violent crackdown on protesters from 1992 to 1995.
In the case titled, Kiobel versus Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 10-1491, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that a presumption against extra-territorial application of federal laws applies to the Alien Tort Statute.
The Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 U.S. law, had been dormant for nearly two centuries before lawyers began using it in the 1980s to bring international human rights cases before U.S. courts.
The court did not decide the question originally before it in the case: whether corporations can ever be liable under the statute.
Although, all the nine justices agreed with the outcome, only four agreed with the chief justice’s reasoning.
However, another justice, Stephen Breyer, wrote a separate opinion in which he was joined by three other justices.
According to Roberts, nothing in the text of the statute suggests that Congress intended causes of action recognized under it to have extra-territorial reach.
He said, “The ruling leaves open some lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute, including against corporations, as long as there is a sufficient connection with the United States. The claims must have sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application.”
Reports stated that the ruling is a major win for multinational companies, especially those involved in extractive industries that do business in the developing world and become embroiled in local political controversies.
The reports said the ruling is likely to affect other cases, including those involving similar claims against Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto Plc over its conduct in Papua New Guinea, and against ExxonMobil Corp over its activity in Indonesia.
The case is Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 10-1491.