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Supreme Court case tests US leadership in human rights

Today the Supreme Court will assess whether US courts can hear lawsuits that pertain to events outside the country. If the justices eventually decide 'no,' an important avenue for redress will be closed to foreign victims of human-rights abuses – and America’s beacon will shine less brightly.

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The US Supreme Court is under a protective scrim, as work continued on the facade Sept. 27. Op-ed contributor Jodie A. Kirshner writes about the case the court will hear on the first day of its new term today: 'Between 1994 and 1995, [Barinem] Kiobel and other residents of the Ogoni region of Nigeria were arrested, tortured, convicted of murder in a sham trial, and shot.' With no redress in Nigeria, Kiobel's widow and survivors 'turned to the American courts.'

Alex Brandon/AP

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Today, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case whose outcome could undermine the role of the United States in upholding human rights around the world.

Specifically, the justices will assess whether American courts can hear lawsuits brought by foreigners that pertain to events that occurred outside the country. If they eventually decide “no,” an important avenue for redress will be closed to foreign victims of human-rights abuses – and America’s beacon as a leader in advancing such rights will shine less brightly.

The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, is being brought by the widow of Dr. Barinem Kiobel, a Nigerian activist. He was executed by the Nigerian military with the alleged complicity of Royal Dutch Petroleum.

Between 1994 and 1995, Kiobel and other residents of the Ogoni region of Nigeria were arrested, tortured, convicted of murder in a sham trial, and shot. They had resisted unregulated oil exploration that Royal Dutch Petroleum was undertaking through contracts with the Nigerian military dictatorship. Ms. Esther Kiobel, who was not tortured, but who filed the claim on behalf of her husband and survivors of the abuses, alleged that the corporation paid Nigerian soldiers to carry out the crimes. She argues that the company transported the soldiers to company property, from which they staged their attack.

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