Rutherford Institute Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Hold Corporations Accountable for Human Rights Abuses in Keeping with the Rule of Law

(WASHINGTON, DC) — The Rutherford Institute has filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that will determine whether U.S. courts are open to persons who are victims of human rights abuses by international corporations. The Institute’s brief in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. asks the Court to reverse a federal appeals court ruling that corporations are not subject to liability under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a 200-year-old law that allows victims of violations of the law of nations to recover damages from the persons responsible for the violations.

In their brief, Institute attorneys argue that U.S. courts should do all they can to prevent and remedy human rights abuses and that it is contrary to established principles and the rule of law to allow corporations to escape responsibility for heinous crimes that violate established international standards simply because they are not “natural” persons. The Rutherford Institute’s brief in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. is available at www.rutherford.org.

“Permitting corporations to escape civil liability for crimes against humanity is a fundamental departure from the constitutional theory of the rule of law upon which the U.S. Constitution rests,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “We have operated too long under a double standard that favors corporations, recognizing them as persons for the purposes of profit but failing to hold them equally accountable for their abuses. The Supreme Court needs to rectify this discrepancy and ensure that corporations are not given carte blanche to operate above the law.”

The case involves a lawsuit by residents of the Ogoni Region of Nigeria, where Royal Dutch Petroleum and its subsidiaries have been involved in oil exploration since 1958. The residents alleged that Royal Dutch, in cooperation with the Nigerian government, began a campaign of repression and terror after residents organized to protest and resist the exploration efforts because of its environmental effects upon the region. According to the complaint, the campaign involved the shooting and killing of Ogoni residents, attacking Ogoni villages, and beating, raping, torturing and arresting residents and destroying or looting of property by Nigerian military forces, allegedly with the aid and assistance of Royal Dutch and its affiliates.

Several Ogoni residents filed suit in a New York federal district court in 2002 under the Alien Tort Statute, which was enacted in 1789 by the First Congress and which provides federal courts with jurisdiction over “any civil action by an alien for tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Insisting that only natural persons are subject to federal court jurisdiction under the ATS, the corporate defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, which the district court denied. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, holding that corporations and other “juridical” entities, while considered “persons” under the law of the United States, are not considered persons under the ATS. However, a federal appeals court ruling in another, unrelated, case held that corporations are subject to the ATS.

In light of the conflict between the circuits, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. In weighing in on the issue, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute are urging the Supreme Court to “affirm the foundational principle that corporations are not above the rule of law and are not available as a vehicle to circumvent domestic or international laws that punish participation in egregious human rights violations.”

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