The US Supreme Court on Wednesday significantly limited the scope
of a 224-year-old federal statute that allows foreign residents to
file civil lawsuits in US courts for violations of international
The high court said it would apply a general presumption that the
1789 Alien Tort Statute (ATS) does not extend US jurisdiction to
human rights violations that take place in a sovereign foreign
"There is no indication that the ATS was passed to make the
United States a uniquely hospitable forum for the enforcement of
international norms," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The decision undercuts what had been a growing area of
international human rights litigation in US courts seeking to hold
multinational corporations accountable for human rights abuses that
take place in foreign countries where they are conducting business.
Human rights groups denounced the decision as a setback, while
business groups praised it as a step forward in helping to clarify
liability for international corporations.
"The US Supreme Court's decision today ensures that trial lawyers
cannot continue to use the American judicial system to expose global
businesses to frivolous and costly lawsuits," Thomas Donohue,
president of the US Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, said the ruling
"gutted" the statute. "This decision cuts a hole into the web of
accountability," she said. "Human rights abusers may be rejoicing
today, but this is a major setback for their victims, who often look
to the United States for justice when all else fails."
The case before the court involved a 2002 lawsuit against Royal
Dutch Petroleum by 12 Nigerians charging that the oil company aided
and abetted the Nigerian military in human rights abuses against the
local population in the oil-rich Ogoni region in the 1990s.
Even though the corporation was a Dutch company with offices in
the United Kingdom, the Nigerians filed their lawsuit in federal
court in New York to take advantage of the broad scope of the ATS.
The suit included allegations of torture, extrajudicial
execution, arbitrary detention, and crimes against humanity from
1992 to 1995, during a government crackdown against local residents
protesting environmental damage because of oil exploration and
Lawyers for the oil company argued that corporations cannot be
held liable in US courts for alleged violations of international law
under the ATS. They urged the high court to declare that the ATS
does not extend to conduct by non-US foreign corporations in a
Human rights lawyers urged the courts to uphold broad enforcement
efforts under the ATS, arguing that nothing in the text of the 1789
statute restricts its scope.
A federal judge upheld much of the suit, but an appeals court
ruled that corporations could not be sued under the ATS for
violations of the law of nations.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court affirmed the appeals court
decision dismissing the case, but on grounds that the suit was
barred by a presumption that US laws do not apply in foreign
countries unless Congress clearly states that they shall.
Five of the court's nine justices agreed that the presumption
against extraterritoriality should apply in the Nigeria case.
The four other justices agreed with the majority that the case
should be dismissed, but they disagreed with Chief Justice Roberts's
application of the extraterritoriality principle.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he would decide the case by applying
principles of international law, but only in cases with a closer
connection to American territory and American interests.
Justice Breyer added that in his view, America has a "distinct
interest in preventing the United States from becoming a safe harbor
for a torturer or other common enemy of mankind."
In a concurrence, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the majority
decision did not close the door entirely on ATS suits involving
overseas actions with a stronger connection to the US. …