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The reach of the U.S. justice system and its role in enforcing international human rights is at play in a case recently argued before the Supreme Court . The case is a civil lawsuit brought by a group of 12 Nigerians living in the United States against Shell Oil Company for alleged human rights violations that occurred in Nigeria in the 1990s.

The plaintiffs, although living in the United States now, are all Nigerians who were living in Nigeria at the time of the alleged atrocities. Meanwhile, although Shell has significant presence in the United States, all of the actions that it is being accused of occurred in Nigeria in relation to its oil exploration activities there.

The reason that this case landed in the United States court system is because of an infrequently used law known as the Alien Tort Statute. The law dates all the way back to the founding of our country and allows for U.S. courts to hear civil lawsuits brought by foreign nationals—such as the Nigerian plaintiffs—for wrongs “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” In other words, foreign nationals can bring a lawsuit in the United States for violations of international law, which is precisely what is at stake in this case. In previous cases, the Supreme Court has held that lawsuits can be brought for severe human rights violations such as torture, genocide and crimes against humanity.

But the question that this particular case raises is whether corporations—as opposed to just individuals—can be sued under the Alien Tort Statute. In oral arguments, the defendants are arguing that international law itself does not create liability for corporate entities and thus their immunity should be upheld at the domestic level as well. In this sense, Shell—and numerous other corporations and governments who have filed briefs on their behalf—are asking the Supreme Court to base its decision on international legal principles, which the Supreme Court rarely does. Meanwhile the plaintiffs rest their argument on the fact that in exchange for the benefits of incorporation, corporations also must be held responsible for the actions of their employees; in other words, if corporations are “people” for purposes of organization, they should be considered “people” for purposes of liability as well.

If the Court allows the suit to move forward, then—theoretically—corporations are subject to greater risk of liability as the U.S. justice system moves a step closer to protecting against international human rights violations. On the other hand, if the Court upholds corporate immunity, then that will close the door on an important, if rarely used, method for plaintiffs to seek justice against major human rights violations.

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