The Modern Corporation: “Pirates Incorporated”

The Supreme Court heard important arguments today regarding what crimes corporations can and can’t be held liable for. In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Shell Oil is being sued for teaming up with the Nigerian military in perpetrating terrible human rights abuses against the Ogoni people–rape, torture and murder–all in the pursuit of massive resource extraction. And all at great cost to the environment.

The lawsuit will test a legal strategy which has been used by human rights advocates for the past several years, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS):

In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), the court will consider whether any lawsuits under the ATS can be brought against corporations, or for any abuses that happen in other countries.

Where do pirates come into the picture? The Alien Tort Statute is international law established centuries ago to govern the high seas. It’s been used to sue companies incorporated in the United States which commit or are complicit in egregious human rights abuses abroad.

Some lawsuits, such as the landmark Doe v. Unocal, have been successful in forcing corporations to settle, even after years of litigation. Now an ATS case has finally made its way to the Supreme Court, and it’s one of the biggest human rights cases in years.

We’ll see if one of the few legal tools to hold corporations accountable stands up when the court makes it ruling.

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