Kiobel Ruling Undermines U.S. Leadership on Human Rights

Washington, DC – Today in its decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Supreme Court gutted the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law that has been on the books for more than 200 years and for the last 30 years has been a critical avenue to hold serious human rights violators accountable. In a decision that will undermine the United States’ status as a leader on human rights, the Justices unanimously decided that the victims of the gross human rights violations alleged in this case were not entitled to relief under the ATS. Furthermore, a majority of the Court ruled more broadly that the ATS does not apply to human rights violations committed in other countries.

Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino stated, “This decision so severely limited a law that has for decades been a beacon of hope for victims of gross human rights violations. The United States has been a leader in the fight against impunity, but this decision cuts a hole into the web of accountability. 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.  Now what will they do?”

In the last generation, the ATS has become an important tool for holding gross human rights violators accountable to their victims in U.S. courts, no matter where the violations occur.  In many countries, especially those with weak and non-independent justice systems and where the government is either the violator or is complicit in human rights violations committed by corporations, the only remedy and the only deterrent is the risk of being held accountable in another country. The law is consistent with a clear trend in international law that not only establishes a baseline of universal human rights, but also recognizes that there are no rights without a remedy and that human rights violators may not hide behind the cloak of sovereignty.

The alleged facts of the Kiobel case are shocking. The plaintiff, Esther Kiobel, for herself and on behalf of her late husband, Dr. Barinem Kiobel and 10 other Nigerians, claims that Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Co.—along with one of its subsidiaries, and a British firm, Shell Transport and Trading Co.—aided and abetted the Nigerian military dictatorship’s use of murder and torture against opponents of oil exploration in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta between 1992 and 1995.


Published on April 17, 2013


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