If foreign victims of human rights abuses can use U.S. courts to seek justice from their tormentors, it shouldn't matter whether they were mistreated by an individual or a corporation. But the Supreme Court was urged this week by an international oil company to insulate it from a law against torture and other violations of the "law of nations."
In 1789, Congress enacted the Alien Tort Statute, which gave federal district courts jurisdiction over "any civil action by an alien for a tort committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." Apparently Congress had in mind a small number of torts — or civil wrongs — including piracy and attacks on ambassadors. The law gathered dust for almost 200 years until it was rediscovered by lawyers for victims of human rights abuses.
In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute authorized lawsuits by foreign nationals for violations of international norms that were as "specific, universal and obligatory" as the ones Congress sought to shore up in 1789. The court didn't provide a definitive list, but other courts have allowed lawsuits claiming torture, arbitrary detention and genocide. The case before the court this week involved accusations that a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Petroleum aided and abetted the Nigerian government in torturing, executing and detaining opponents of oil exploration. The company allegedly provided transportation to Nigerian forces, allowed its property to be utilized as a staging ground for attacks and provided soldiers with food and money.