The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on whether or not corporations can be held liable for complicity in human rights abuses outside the country. The specific case on dock concerns the torture and execution of activists in Nigeria and the alleged involvement of oil giant Shell.
The Supreme Court case is Esther Kiobel versus the Royal Dutch Shell petroleum company.
Kiobel is the widow of one of nine anti-Shell protest leaders executed in Nigeria by the military in 1995.
Shell, headquartered in the Netherlands, and registered in Britain, is the fifth largest company in the world.
On the side of the plaintiffs, Jennifer Green, a professor of law from the University of Minnesota, explains Tuesday’s importance.
“The issue before the court is whether a corporation is basically immune for human rights abuses and we think the most significant principle is that corporations that are doing business in the United States are bound by U.S. law and U.S. law includes the prohibition of human rights violations. So when a corporation is complicit in those violations, it can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute," she said.
The 1789 statute remained almost completely unused until the 1980s, but since then it has come up more and more.
It allows courts to hear cases brought up by foreigners for violations of international laws and U.S. treaties.
A U.S.-based member of the 1990s protests in the southern Ogoni region of Nigeria, Ben Ikari, plans to organize protests outside the Supreme Court Tuesday. He says he feels proud of his long struggle against environmental degradation caused by oil companies.
“The Ogoni case even from the non-violent struggle we started has been a kind of boost to other oppressed people in Nigeria, even Africa in general, extending even to the world. People now they can face or they can challenge multinational corporations such as Shell, strong, mighty, rich corporations such as Shell, and so that fear has been taken away," he said.
Similar cases filed by relatives of Ogoni protest leader Ken Saro-Wiwa resulted in a 2009 $15.5 million settlement by Shell for the plaintiffs and Ogoni people.
The settlement was reached after 13 years of legal wrangling just before the scheduled start of a jury trial in a New York federal court.
Shell officials vigorously denied any involvement in the killings or in any human rights abuses, but said they acknowledged plaintiffs and others had suffered.
In terms of the current Kiobel case, the Supreme Court will only decide whether it can proceed in the U.S. judicial system.
At that point, Marco Simon, the legal director of Earthrights International, says there would still be many hurdles. “Shell could argue that the case should be heard in Nigeria, it could argue that the plaintiffs have not submitted sufficient evidence to prove that Shell was involved in the human rights abuses at issue," he said.
There was no immediate response by Shell officials for a comment for this report.
Lawyers for the oil company have previously said there should not be corporate liability in such cases because, if so, companies may become less inclined to work in countries where human rights abuses regularly take place.
The British, Dutch and German governments, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other multinational corporations have also supported Shell, saying what happened in Nigeria has no connection to the United States.
The administration of President Barack Obama and international human rights organizations have come out supporting the argument of corporate liability.
A Supreme Court decision is expected by the end of June.