U.S. Supreme Court hears corporate human rights abuse case

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday to decide if international corporations can be sued for human rights violations abroad.

The plaintiffs in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum claim that Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s fifth most profitable company, was complicit in killings, torture and arbitrary arrests committed by the Nigerian government in the 1990s.

Shell denies involvement in the atrocities.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs argue Shell is liable under a 1789 law known as the Alien Tort Statute that allows non-Americans to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international laws. Lawyers say their clients’ complaints represent “a microcosm of the widespread and systematic human rights violations,” according to court documents.

“The Nigerian military, aided and abetted by respondents and their agents, engaged in a widespread and systematic campaign of torture, extrajudicial executions, prolonged arbitrary detention, and indiscriminate killings constituting crimes against humanity,” reads the argument written by Kiobel’s lawyers.

Shell argues that the 223-year-old law applies to individuals, not corporations and that allowing the suit to proceed would damage the U.S.’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and discourage investment in developing nations. Shell’s lawyers say that even if a corporation can be held liable for human rights abuses in Nigeria, it would require intent, not “mere knowledge.”

“Even a meritless federal suit against a corporation can take years to resolve and cause substantial public-relations damage in the interim,” reads the argument written by Shell’s lawyers. “Foreign governments too will suffer economically from reduction of such investment; and will be offended as sovereigns when U.S. courts pass judgment on the foreign government’s actions within its borders.”

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can be treated as individuals in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court said limiting corporate spending on political cases violated the organization’s First Amendment right to free speech.

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Shell is based in the Netherlands, and registered in the United Kingdom. The British, Dutch and German governments back Shell, saying the US would violate international law by claiming jurisdiction on alleged wrongdoings in other countries. The US Chamber of Commerce also supports Shell’s claims, saying if the court holds the company liable, "the global business community will face yet another wave of frivolous and expensive litigation," Reuters reports.

Activists accuse Shell of exacerbating conflict in the Niger Delta, through payments to militant groups. In a 2011 report, watchdog group Platform says Shell "admits that from 2006 onwards, [it] paid thousands of dollars every month to armed militants in the town of Rumuekpe, in the full knowledge that the money was used to sustain three years of conflict."

“By prioritizing access to oil facilities over the human rights of local communities, Shell has involved itself in conflicts, divided communities and fuelled bloody and destructive fighting,” reads the report.

Other groups, like Amnesty International, accuse Shell of not properly cleaning up oil spills, violating the Nigerian people’s right to health, food and a safe environment.  Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and largest oil exporter, is the US's fifth largest provider of oil. 

Meanwhile, an article in the Guardian that accompanied the Platform report described an extremely difficult working environment, in which factions battle for Shell's largesse.

"The [rival gang] will come and fight, some will die, just to enable them to also get [a] share. So the place now becomes a contest ground for warring factions. Who takes over the community has the attention of the company."

More from GlobalPost: Nigeria: Shell says oil lost to thieves, corruption

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