On the very first day of its new term Monday, the Supreme Court will hear Shell oil’s challenge to a bizarre law used to sue corporations for human rights abuses abroad.Under that 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute, foreign plaintiffs can sue big corporations and others in U.S. courts over alleged violations of “international laws” on foreign soil.
The law is odd because it can be used to bring suits that don’t actually involve any U.S. parties—like the case against Shell.
In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Nigerian villagers filed suit in U.S. court claiming the Dutch-British corporation aided the Nigerian government in human rights abuses.
The lawyer John Bellinger has previously written in The Washington Post that the Supreme Court should limit the scope of the ATS because it could create international tension as it’s currently used.
“International law does not allow courts of one country to exercise jurisdiction in civil cases over offenses in other countries,” he wrote.
Bellinger noted a number of big corporations have been accused of “aiding and abetting” foreign governments’ abuses abroad: Coca-Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Yahoo, and General Motors, to name a few.
For its part, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard says the ATS is an important tool for survivors of horrific human rights abuses.
Given the corporate-friendly nature of the Supreme Court, those plaintiffs might not have this tool for long.
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