Alien Tort Claims Act


On the eve of the beginning of jury selection in New York, it was reported yesterday that Royal Dutch Shell settled the law suit brought against it by the son of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and the families of the other activists killed with him.  The plaintiffs alleged that Shell officials helped furnish Nigerian police with weapons, participated in security sweeps of the area, and hired government troops that shot at villagers protesting the construction of a pipeline. Moreover, that Shell helped the government capture and hang Saro-Wiwa, John Kpuinen, Saturday Doobee, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo and Dr. Barinem Kiobel on Nov. 10, 1995.

Throughout the fourteen years of litigation Shell denied any involvement in the human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian government but Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s executive director of exploration and production said that the settlement was a step towards reconciliation.”This gesture also acknowledges that, even though Shell had no part in the violence that took place, the plaintiffs and others have suffered,”

The Wiwa family was represented by Jenny Green of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Green said the settlment send a a message to other multinationals that operate in developing countries,”You can’t commit human rights violations as a part of doing business,” she said. “A corporation can’t act with impunity. And we think there is accountability in this settlement.”

As we indicated in an earlier blog, this case was filed under the Alien Torts Claims Act. It is not yet possible to get a criminal case for violation of humanitarian law in an international forum. But the case against Shell was a significant milestone is accountability for corporations and their obligations to comply with human rights standards.

In addition to the settlement, Shell will pay lawyers fees for the plaintiffs. One third of the settlement will be placed in a trust fund to be used on community development projects for the Ogoniland region, which is Shell operated and where Saro-Wiwa and the others lived.

Advertisements

Ordinarily corporations are not mentioned in the discussions of liability for humanitarian crimes, but there are two matters which crept into the news recently that deserve mention here.  In the Southern District of New York, a trial date has been set in Ken Wiwa, et al. v. Royal Dutch Shell Co., et  al., the case brought by the family of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa against Royal Dutch Shell, alleging that Shell was complicit in the Nigerian government’s execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other activities in 1995. The second matter was the release of the results of the Chiquita Brands International, independent committee of directors’  investigation into Chiquita’s  payment of bribes to terrorists in Columbia, as reported in Law.com’s International Law Blog. The report was submitted to the court as part of Chiquita’s defense against claims made under the Alien Tort Claims Act by families of persons killed by the Colombian groups.

Discussion of corporate liability for humanitarian crimes is rare because, with some limited exceptions from the Nuremberg trials, international humanitarian law has developed in the context of individual liability and secondly, many legal systems throughout the world do not recognize legal persons, thus prosecution of legal persons is not possible. There is some movement on this point as several recent conventions and treaties encourage signator nations to create criminal liability for legal persons in their domestic codes. The Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime is an example of  one such convention. However, liability for legal persons for war crimes, for example, is still out of reach. Legal scholars in the humanitarian area are developing theories of liability for corporations for crimes against humanity and war crimes, particularly in the environmental area, but currently the only way to bring a corporation to account for humanitarian type violations and other human rights abuses is through the Alien Torts Claims Act.

Without commenting on the merits of either case, the facts that have been revealed in both cases are horrific, and highlight the way in which activity which we normally associate with crimes against humanity and/or war crimes can create impunity when the activity is associated with corporations. As we keep watch on developments in the two cases, it becomes increasingly clear that international humanitarian law must develop and implement a solid theory of corporate criminal liability for crimes against humanity and war crimes.