Supreme Court to decide on reach of global human rights law

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to resolve an international human rights dispute over whether corporations and political groups can be held liable in American courts for their role in the torture, killing and enslavement of victims abroad.

Since the Nazi war crimes trials at Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II, international law has held that human rights abuses can be prosecuted around the globe. And two U.S. laws — the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 and the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1992 — give American courts the jurisdiction to decide human rights cases.

But it is unclear whether the targets of such cases are limited to the people who perpetrated the abuses or to corporations and political organizations as well.

The Supreme Court said it would decide both questions in a pair of cases.

The justices will hear the case of a dozen Nigerians who sued the Royal Dutch Shell oil company in the torture and execution of dissidents in Nigeria in the 1990s. The victims included noted playwright and human rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa. The lawsuit alleges Shell aided and abetted the Nigerian regime.


Last year, a federal appeals court in New York threw out the suit and said corporations were not liable for such abuses. Its opinion cited the Nazi-era example of IG Farben, which supplied the deadly gas for the Auschwitz death camp. The judges said 24 executives of IG Farben were charged with war crimes, but not the company itself.

Los Angeles lawyer Paul Hoffman, in his appeal on behalf of the Nigerian plaintiffs, called the ruling “the first to exempt corporations from liability for the most heinous human rights violations.”

The case, Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum, is likely to be heard in February.

The second case involves a lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization by the sons and widow of Azzam Rahim, a Palestinian American. Rahim was allegedly tortured and killed by Palestinian intelligence officials in the 1990s.

His family brought suit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, but the U.S. appellate court in Washington ruled that such claims were limited to individual perpetrators and did not extend to political groups like the PLO.

The court said it would hear the family’s appeal in Mohamad vs. Rajoub at the same time as the Royal Dutch Petroleum case.