Shell Nigeria: Landmark Nigerian Shell Lawsuit

March 23, 2012 by staff 

Shell Nigeria: Landmark Nigerian Shell Lawsuit, Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard and the author of five books, most recently “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDRs Great Supreme Court Justices.”

Should corporations be held liable for acts of torture committed under their auspices? If that had been the only issue considered by the Supreme Court last week in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the logical answer would surely have to be yes.

If corporations are people for the purpose of constitutional rights like free speech — as per the Citizens United decision — they ought to be treated as people when it comes to responsibilities as well. If Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) aided the Nigerian government in raping and murdering people in the Ogoni region to keep the oil flowing, as the plaintiffs claim, it would seem monstrous to let the company get away with it just because it is a corporation.

Yet that was not the only issue before the court — at least if you listened to the justices during oral argument. They seemed preoccupied with a prior question: Are the federal courts the right place to hold foreigners responsible for human-rights violations that take place abroad against other foreigners?

On this question, reasonable minds can differ. Human-rights advocates say yes. As a practical matter, there is often no other venue where victims can have justice done. The Nigerian courts are not much of an option for Nigerians who allege that they were abused and tortured by their government. International courts rarely concern themselves with the minutiae of ordinary human-rights violations.

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