At Supreme Court: Can US courts be venue for human rights cases from abroad?
On Day 1 of its term, the US Supreme Court heard a case involving allegations by 12 Nigerians that a foreign oil firm abetted human rights abuses in Nigeria 20 years ago. Alien Tort Statute, originally aimed at allowing legal action against pirates, lies at heart of the case.
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“Do you disagree that those are fair judicial systems where a plaintiff can get a fair shake?” he asked Mr. Hoffman.Skip to next paragraph
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“I don’t think that anybody disputes that the legal systems in the Netherlands or the United Kingdom are fair,” Hoffman replied.
“If that’s so,” Justice Alito continued, “then why does this case belong in the courts of the United States?”
Hoffman answered: “Our clients are here.”
“This case has nothing to do with the United States,” countered Kathleen Sullivan, a lawyer for Royal Dutch Petroleum.
“It’s Nigerian plaintiffs suing an English and Dutch company for activity alleged to have aided and abetted the Nigerian government for conduct taking place entirely within Nigeria,” she said. US law should not extend to actions within Nigeria that have no connection with the US, Ms. Sullivan said.
Not all justices opposed a broad application of the statute. Justice Stephen Breyer said the law passed in 1789 was aimed in part at allowing legal action against pirates. The question now, Justice Breyer said, is who are today’s pirates and wouldn’t the ATS apply to them wherever they may be found?
“If Hitler isn’t a pirate, who is?” he said. “If an equivalent torturer or dictator who wants to destroy an entire race in his own country is not the equivalent of today’s pirate, who is?”
Sullivan replied that the United States has not agreed to the principle that its US civil lawsuits may be filed and enforced everywhere on earth.
What about torture? Breyer asked.
“The United States objected to the universal civil jurisdiction aspect of the [United Nations] convention against torture. We have never acceded to that,” Sullivan said.
She added: “The reason is that … we fear that if we say that a United States court can be open to try any accused law of nations violator anywhere in the world regardless of the place of the conduct, the other nations of the world might seek to do the same to us,” she said.
The case is Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (10-1491). A decision is expected by the end of the term in June.