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Victims file new brief on corporate liability for torture overseas

Victims of alleged torture and international law violations that took place overseas filed their supplemental brief [text, PDF] to the US Supreme Court [official website] Monday arguing that the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (ATS) [text] is not limited to torts that occur in the US. The brief argues that because the 18th century statute was enacted to prosecute piracy, which occurs in international waters, it does not make sense to construe the statute today to only apply to US territory. In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. [docket], the Supreme Court in March ordered [JURIST report] the parties "to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: 'Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute ... allows courts to recognize a cause of action for violations of the law of nations occurring within the territory of a sovereign other than the United States.'" The court originally took the case in October and heard arguments [JURIST report] in February to determine whether three oil companies are immune from US lawsuits under the ATS for alleged torture and international law violations.

While accepting that international law is the proper authority to define human rights violations, the petitioners, Nigerian plaintiffs suing foreign-based oil companies, argued in February that domestic US common law should fill in the blank in ATS over who could actually be sued for such atrocities. The US government sided with the petitioners, with Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler providing the additional argument that international law does not independently foreclose foreign corporate liability the way that it immunizes a foreign government from liability for official wrongdoings. The respondent oil companies argued that international law is wholly controlling in such a situation and that domestic US common law has no bearing on the proceedings. Respondents pressed the fact that not only does international law not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses, but the world community has never recognized corporate liability for the misdeeds of individuals: "No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection." While the issue in the case was supposed to focus on "the narrow issue of whether a corporation can ever be held liable for violating fundamental human rights norms under the Alien Tort Statute," the court frequently pushed petitioners on the specific point of whether Congress intended ATS to permit suits by aliens against aliens for overseas acts.

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