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Can foreigners sue international corporations in US courts?

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A federal judge in New York allowed a portion of the suit to move forward, but a federal appeals court threw the entire case out. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the appeal.

At issue in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (10-1491) is whether international corporations may be held responsible in an American courtroom for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights abuses that take place in a foreign country.

Lawyers for Royal Dutch Petroleum maintain that the statute only permits lawsuits against individuals who personally perpetrate human rights violations, rather than the corporation that employs them.

The appeal stems from a 2002 civil lawsuit filed on behalf of 12 residents of the oil-rich Ogoni region of the Niger River delta.

The residents charge that from 1992 to 1995 Royal Dutch Petroleum and its subsidiaries aided and abetted the Nigerian military in conducting a campaign of terror and intimidation through the use of extrajudicial killings, torture, and other tactics to protect the oil company’s operations from the grassroots opposition of the Ogoni people. The company has denied involvement in atrocities.

Normally, such a suit would be filed in Nigeria, where the events took place, or in the Netherlands or the United Kingdom where the corporate subsidiaries are based.

But lawyers for the villagers decided to base their suit on the Alien Tort Statute which permits non-US citizen “aliens” to sue other foreign residents for egregious violations of international law such as genocide, extra-judicial killing, torture, and slavery.

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