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Posted by on Feb 28, 2012 in International, Law | 8 comments

What Happens When U.S. Law Collides With Int’l Law? That’s for The Supremes To Sort Out


CHARLES WIWA

Two human rights cases being argued before the Supreme Court today are tests of how U.S. law intersects with international law and unintentionally a test of the court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling declaring that corporations are individuals with the same fundamental rights as living-and-breathing individuals.

In one of the cases, 12 Nigerian citizens who have been granted political asylum in the U.S. are suing Royal Dutch Shell Oil, which is accused of aiding and abetting the Nigerian government in committing atrocities in the 1990.

The suit against the petroleum giant is based on the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789 by the first U.S. Congress and aimed mainly at pirates. The statute says that U.S. trial courts can hear civil damage suits brought by a foreign national for wrongs “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

The statue remained largely unused until 1980 when victims of human rights abuses began using it against foreign individuals and corporations, and in 2004 the Supreme Court, by a 6-to-3 vote, upheld the application of the law to human rights abuses, but only for a limited category of crimes — torture, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

Backing Shell are more than two dozen multinational corporations and several countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. They say that if the court rules that corporations can be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, it will exacerbate what they characterize as the existing flood of litigation. To which I says that if corporations are individuals, then they certainly can be sued as individuals for misconduct and crimes given the status awarded them as a result of the Citizens United ruling.

Shell Oil counters that corporations cannot be sued in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Statute because international law doesn’t recognize corporate liability for human rights crimes.

In the mid-1990s, religious, student and civic leaders in the Ogoni region of Nigeria began demonstrating peacefully against Shell, protesting that their farmland was being ruined by oil spills and that Shell contributed nothing to the local economy and did not pay for clean up or environmental protection. The protest leadership was rounded up, tortured, and in some instances killed.

National Public Radio reports that those who survived and fled included Charles Wiwa, who says that after he led a rally in his home village, he was picked up and beaten by 18 soldiers before a crowd of thousands in an open air market.

“They started beating me — horsewhipping me, clubbing me, [kicking me with their] boots for a really long time,” Wiwa says. He says the beating lasted more than two hours.

There were more beatings, he says, and eventually he was charged with unlawful assembly. Released on bail, he says there were two attempts to abduct him.

For the past 16 years, Wiwa has lived in the United States. Now in Chicago, where he works as an export consultant, he is among the Ogoni refugees in the U.S. who have doggedly pursued Shell, contending that the oil company worked hand-in-glove with the Nigerian military to brutally suppress any opposition to the way the company operates.

Among the others bringing charges is a Seventh Day Adventist bishop and a local leader’s widow, who was raped and beaten after her husband was arrested and summarily executed.

The second human rights case before the court today is a suit brought against the Palestinian Authority and the PLO for the torture and murder of a naturalized American citizen while he was in the custody of the Palestinian police. The case also involves the question of whether lawsuits can be brought against individuals only, or groups and entities. The outcome therefore could also have implications for corporations, though the case here is brought against the Palestinian Authority for a 1993 death.

Decisions in both cases are expected by summer.

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • zephyr

    Too bad we don’t have a supreme court ethical enough to be trusted to rule fairly in these cases.

  • EEllis

    You are making a hash out of the legalities of this case, and not surprisingly what the citizens united decision says. Citizens United has nothing at all to do with this case. There is a long history of Corporations being sued in the US, an example of being treated like people, the issue is Foreign based corporations and international law doesn’t recognize corporate liability for human rights crimes. A quote from Chevron’s brief in support of Shell said, “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.” While the Alien Tort Statute has been held to allow such suits it is clear that many members of the court are not firmly behind that idea.

    Now a ruling on this case will not have any effect on the accusation of guilt on the part of Shell, It will just say that even tho no other country in the world recognizes corporate liability in human rights abuses a foreign person can sue a foreign corporation for a violation that occurred across the globe for a crime that had absolutely no involvement with the US in any way. The actually litigation on wither Shell merely doing business with the elected govt of Nigeria automatically makes it party to all the Govts crimes is a different and lengthy process.

  • EEllis:

    Yes, of course. Dealing Citizens United into this case was merely another way to point out what an abomination that it is.

  • PJBFan

    Citizens United is not relevant to this case. It is a free speech case that has no effect on the rule of international law.

    Yes, Citizens United was wrong politically, but as a matter of law, thanks to the last Court, as well as Justices Warren, Brennan, and (Thurgood) Marshall, it became the law. That being said, the decision in Citizens United, it is utterly irrelevant to the case at bar.

  • zephyr

    Hardly irrelevant. If the USSC is too inept and/or untrustworthy to rule correctly on such an obvious case as CU how can they be trusted to rule on anything else? Fool me once, etc…

  • EEllis

    Yes, of course. Dealing Citizens United into this case was merely another way to point out what an abomination that it is.

    But you are not even being accurate about that case on it’s own.

  • EEllis

    Hardly irrelevant. If the USSC is too inept and/or untrustworthy to rule correctly on such an obvious case as CU how can they be trusted to rule on anything else? Fool me once, etc…

    But the thing is CU isn’t wrong on it’s face. I understand that people are concerned where it might lead and the damage that could be done, but teisting reality and pretending the case is saying something it’s not isn’t the way to handle the situation. Scotus has ruled on enough cases everyone could spout that same crap you do. It’s pointless and rather childish when just used to hide from honest discusions of real issues.

  • EEllis

    Just as a note this is an example of the shutting down of discussion by use of inappropriate or incorrect examples/statements whatever. We are more likely to argue about the examples or the supporting statements than talk about the issue. Over reaching shuts down conversations and to me that’s not good.

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