Is Royal Dutch Petroleum, widely known in Nigeria as Shell, complicit in the widespread human rights violations committed by the Sani Abacha regime in the 1990s?

That is the thrust of a major case heard by the United States Supreme Court today in Washington, D.C. in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), which was brought by 12 plaintiffs from the Ogoni region against Shell.

The heart of the case is whether corporations and organizations doing business in the United States can be held liable in U.S. courts when they are complicit in human rights violations abroad.

Following today’s court session, lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Kiobel case, Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, said he was hopeful the Supreme Court recognizes the valuable role the Alien Tort Statute can play in ensuring that corporations, like people, have the responsibility to act in accordance with international human rights standards.

The Alien Tort Statute is a 200-year-old law which provides that those who commit acts of torture and other crimes against nature in violation of international law abroad can be held liable in US courts. The Supreme Court’s decision, to be delivered in June, will hinge on whether it believes that it should continue its current interpretation which allows cases to be brought against corporate human rights violators, or whether the statute only applies to natural persons.
 

The High Court’s decision hinges on whether it believes that the Alien Tort Statute – a 200-year-old law which provides that those who commit acts of torture and other crimes against nature in violation of international law abroad can be held liable in US courts – should continue its current interpretation which allows cases to be brought against corporate human rights violators, or whether the statute only applies to natural persons. Over 20 amicus curiae briefs have been filed in support of each side in the case.

Charles Wiwa, one of the plaintiffs, said, "Corporations can no longer act like they are invisible when consciously committing crimes against humanity. It is my hope that this case will set a precedent that will respect communities where oil has been prospected."

Carey D’Avino, counsel for the plaintiffs, added, "We argued today that corporations can be held accountable for violations of international law, and there is no law-free zone that permits corporations to commit genocide, torture, or crimes against humanity. We believe that the Supreme Court will vindicate our view when it hands down its decision later this term."

The plaintiffs allege in the case that Shell aided and abetted the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the early 1990s leading to the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of nonviolent activists opposed to Shell’s despoliation of the Niger Delta, and in the case of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, his wrongful execution. 

They argue that Shell provided financial and other assistance to the Nigerian military and worked together with the military to target the plaintiffs.  Dr. Kiobel was executed with other Ogoni leaders after a trial that was condemned by both governments and human rights organizations as a sham.

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