Fifteen years ago, Doe v. Unocal became the first international human rights lawsuit to proceed against a corporation. A California federal court ruled that EarthRights International's lawsuit, brought on behalf of Burmese villagers who were raped, tortured and killed by security forces for a gas pipeline project, could proceed against the oil company Unocal under a law known as the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Since then ERI has continued to litigate ATS cases against corporations for human rights abuses, and to support cases brought by others. These cases have challenged complicity in the Holocaust, crimes against humanity in Sudan, torture and killings in Indonesia, and war crimes in Papua New Guinea, among other egregious abuses. Right now, one of ERI's cases is an ATS lawsuit challenging Chiquita's assistance to violent paramilitary death squads in Colombia, which involves thousands of victims.
Kiobel v. Shell, the ATS, and the US Supreme Court
On October 1st, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that will decide whether the legacy of Doe v. Unocal - that corporations present in the United States can be held accountable here for the worst human rights abuses, no matter where they occur - will remain intact. In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell), the court is considering whether any lawsuits under the ATS can be brought against corporations, or for any abuses that happen in other countries. Shell is accused of conspiring with and abetting the Nigerian military in committing crimes against humanity and illegal executions of the Ogoni people, who opposed Shell's oil operations in their territory. And Shell argued to the Supreme Court that even if they did these things - even if they asked the Nigerian military to brutally suppress the Ogoni movement, and execute its leaders - they cannot be held responsible, both because the abuses happened in Nigeria and because Shell is a corporation.
ERI did not bring the Kiobel lawsuit, but because the case is central to our work, we've gotten involved wherever possible. We've filed amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs, we've been blogging about the case for two years, we rallied outside the court on October 1st, and we recently launched a new campaign website, TooBigToPunish.org, which asks the question: Is Shell too big to punish for human rights abuses? You can support our efforts by watching and sharing our 90 second parody video (embedded below) about the twisted logic of Shell's defense, and by taking the pledge at TooBigToPunish.org so we can continue to call on you down the road.
What's at stake?
What would happen if the Supreme Court rules that Shell cannot be sued? It may be that no more ATS cases can be brought against corporations. Although the ATS is an important legal tool in corporate accountability for human rights abuses, it is not the only one. We won't stop trying to prevent such abuses and we won't stop pursuing justice for the victims. But we will also need help in ensuring that new avenues for addressing corporate abuses remain open, both internationally and here in the United States. We can't let companies like Shell get away with murder!