Analysis Law and Policy

In Nigeria Case, Supreme Court Looks at Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses Abroad

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Will corporations that facilitate human rights abuses abroad be held accountable under U.S. law? That's the question the Supreme Court will decide in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

The Supreme Court opened its new term with a case testing the lengths to which corporations can be held responsible for abuses they commit abroad and setting the tone for what could be another big victory for corporate power. And while the case before the high court doesn’t involve an American corporation, the court’s decision could impact those doing business abroad in some of the world’s most complicated regions.

In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Pretroluem, a group of Nigerians sued the defendant oil companies under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), alleging that the companies helped the Nigerian government stop protests by residents of the country’s Ogani region of oil exploration. The plaintiffs, Nigerian citizens who were legal residents of the United States after having been granted political asylum before the suit was filed, claim that the defendant corporations aided and abetted the Nigerian government in violating their human rights, including torture, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killings.

The ATS was first enacted as part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and says that foreign citizens may bring civil suits in U.S. district courts for actions “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Even though it’s been on the books since the dawn of our democracy, it wasn’t until 1980 that federal courts paid the ATS any attention. In Fliartiga v. Pena-Irala, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the ATS gave jurisdiction over a lawsuit brought by a Paraguayan national against another Paraguayan national living in the United States for torture that occurred in Paraguay. Since that decision, victims of human rights violations that occurred overseas have tried to use the ATS to bring their own claims in U.S. courts, arguing in part that human rights law is inadequate and that the ATS provides them remedy in the United States.

According to the allegations in the Kiobel complaint, the company-backed government troops murdered, raped, and detained Nigerian residents in violation of international human rights laws. They sued the oil companies in New York federal court arguing the ATS was the vehicle for them to hold those companies accountable for the human rights abuses.

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A federal court dismissed some, but not all the claims, and both sides appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. That court ruled that the ATS does not give federal courts subject matter jurisdiction over lawsuits against corporations. In a 2-to-1 split decision, the Second Circuit said that the scope of the ATS is determined not by U.S. law, which does impose liability on corporations for their bad actions, but instead by standards of international law, which does not. That means the ATS may allow non-citizens to get into court, but it doesn’t provide those non-citizens any remedy. Instead, the law interpreted by the courts to determine if those abuses would be remedied would have to come from international law.

According to the Second Circuit, “customary” international law has not established liability for corporations committing or aiding and abetting human rights violations. For the court, before a practice becomes “customary international law,” it must be engaged in repeatedly by a significant number of countries and based on the belief that their actions are legally required and not rejected by a large number of other countries. For the plaintiffs in Kiobel, that meant they could bring a case in the United States, but were out of luck because international law does not recognize corporate criminal liability the way the federal common law does in the United States.

The Supreme Court first heard the Kiobel challenge last term. There the issue before the Court was whether corporations could be held liable for such violations. After the February 2012 oral argument, however, the Court broadened the scope of the case, and directed the parties to also address whether federal courts had jurisdiction over violations committed on foreign soil regardless of whether the perpetrator was a corporation or an individual.

During those arguments several justices, including Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, expressed concern about the ability of the ATS to reach beyond the shores of the United States. They questioned whether alien tort claims with little or no connection to the United States had any place before U.S. courts, and whether resolution of those claims in U.S. courts creates international tension or violates international law. Those questions, along with the scope of the entirety of the ATS, is before the court this term.

The dispute exposes a gap in the evolution of international law and why the ATS could be so important in filling that gap. As Stephen Wermiel explains at SCOTUSblog, since World War II there has been an increasing focus on the use of international criminal tribunals to try individuals for violations of international norms. But those venues provide no relief if corporations are behind the wrongdoing, which is in part what prompted the federal government at one time to file a brief in support of the Kiobel plaintiffs.

The Roberts Court is not likely to look kindly on the Kiobel plaintiffs. Taking off where former Chief Justice William Rehnquist left off, Chief Justice John Roberts has continued the trend of limiting access to the federal courts in general. There’s no reason to think Roberts and the other conservatives will find a compelling reason to grant access to the federal courts to Nigerians, Burmese, or other poor non-citizens complaining about corporate wrongdoing abroad, and the questions from the first Kiobel case seem to back that up.

Not surprisingly, the business community has been fighting hard against using the ATS to provide a vehicle for corporate accountability and argues that a ruling against them by the Supreme Court would open the door to threatening the sovereignty of those countries that play host to American corporate interests. And both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where Royal Dutch Petroleum is incorporated, filed briefs in the case arguing against the use of U.S. laws to try international law cases and couch their opposition as trying to avoid a diplomatic conflict between the States and countries where corporate interests operating in developing nations that would bristle at the idea of this kind of “legal colonialism.”

Notably, not all countries oppose the use of U.S. law to settle questions of international human rights abuses. Argentina filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Kiobel plaintiffs, arguing the ATS, while flawed, is right now the best law to respond to human rights abuses abroad and noted the ATS was among the tools used to respond to human rights violations that happened during that country’s military dictatorship.

The stakes in this case are enormous. Right now the question of how the courts of the United States can be used to enforce international law against human rights violations is unsettled at the same time that increased globalization demands a need for greater corporate accountability. When rape is a tool of political oppression and one facilitated by the presence of powerful corporate interests, the ATS and American courts can serve as the only avenue for justice for the world’s most vulnerable. And that is why human rights activists are rightly nervous that the fate of the ATS lies in the hands of the Roberts Court.

Analysis Human Rights

Immigrant Rights Groups Call for Moratorium on Deportations After Supreme Court Ruling

Tina Vasquez

“Given the pain and the suffering immigrants have been facing with family separation—the minimum the president can do is stop deportations," said Tania Unzueta, policy and legal director at #Not1More, a campaign to stop anti-immigrant laws.

The undocumented community received a devastating blow when the Supreme Court deadlocked on United States v. Texas, the lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive action on immigration. The Court’s decision leaves 3.6 million undocumented parents without the ability to work legally in the United States and with no relief from deportation.

Immigrant rights organizations say forcing such a large segment of the undocumented population to live in fear is “unacceptable,” and they are calling for a moratorium on deportations.

“Honestly, we were waiting on the Supreme Court to give us something, anything in the form of relief, and it didn’t happen,” said Tania Unzueta, policy and legal director at #Not1More, a campaign to stop anti-immigrant laws. “This is why we’re calling for the moratorium. It feels like this is the minimum we can ask for. People would be much happier with rights and citizenship and being able to do things like legally work in this country, but that’s not on the table right now. Given the pain and the suffering immigrants have been facing with family separation—the minimum the president can do is stop deportations.”

Stopping deportations, which have separated thousands of families, is within President Obama’s power, advocates say. As Unzueta wrote recently at the #Not1More site, the Supreme Court’s inaction in United States v. Texas “did not result in a challenge to the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration enforcement issues or the President’s executive power to expand, reduce, or shut down the immigration enforcement programs that it has invested in.” And as Peter L. Markowitz, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, wrote in the New York Times, the president does have the “pardon power,” which includes “the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest.” Unlike deferred action, amnesty would not provide work permits, but there would be no complicated application process and it would be a form of immediate relief for millions of undocumented immigrants. However, given the president’s immigration track record, it’s unclear if President Obama is even considering amnesty.

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Deportations: An Urgent Crisis

The president’s executive action would have expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, enabling eligible undocumented immigrants to receive three-year work permits, and created Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). DAPA would have provided a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation for two years to undocumented parents with children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents and also meet certain requirements.

After the Supreme Court announced its split decision, President Obama essentially washed his hands of the undocumented community for the remainder of his presidency, while also leaving behind a “deportation machine” for the next president of the United States, Unzueta told Rewire.

In remarks after the Supreme Court ruling, President Obama said that in November when the next president is elected, he believes the country will get an immigration policy that reflects “the goodness of the American people” and that he has “pushed to the limits” of his executive authority. “We now have to have Congress act,” the president said, while also assuring Americans that the enforcement policies enacted by his administration will remain in place.

The president is referring to policies like the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), announced November 20, 2014, the same day he announced the expansion of deferred action. PEP replaced Security Communities, an immigration enforcement and deportation program, though advocates argue that PEP is simply a continuation of Secure Communities. Both programs include local law enforcement working with ICE to detain undocumented immigrants.

“Since that announcement of both DAPA and PEP, there are members of our community who have experienced no relief. Now, because of the [Supreme Court] ruling, all that’s come is an increase in the ability to deport people. To me, that proves that you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket, and Obama can’t rely on trying to expand deferred action as the only response to immigrant communities. There’s so much more that he can do,” Unzueta told Rewire.

In a post for #Not1More, the policy and legal director outlined all of the avenues President Obama could take in light of the Supreme Court ruling, including stopping the home raids that have been taking place since January, reviewing his enforcement priorities such as targeting those who recently arrived in the United States, and ending “all programs that entangle local law enforcement and immigration enforcement.” Unzueta also wrote that the president could stop defending “the erosion of the few rights that immigrants have in detention centers,” referring to Jennings v. Rodriguez, a case the Supreme Court announced it would take four days before it issued its decision on DAPA. In Jennings, the Court will debate how long undocumented immigrants detained for immigration violations can be held in detention. “The case had already been decided in the 9th Circuit Court, indicating that immigrants had a right to a regular review of their case via a bond hearing,” Unzueta wrote. “The Obama administration is pushing against this decision asking the Supreme Court to overturn it, arguing effectively for fewer rights for immigrants who are detained.”

The most pressing concern, however, is deportations, which is why #Not1More and other groups, including ICE Out of Austin and the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA), are calling for a moratorium on them.

On June 27, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights blocked the ICE Atlanta field office and undocumented members of CIRA blocked traffic at the Hartford, Connecticut, immigration office demanding a moratorium on deportations. According to CIRA member Stefan Keller, the Hartford action resulted in the arrest of nine protesters, some of whom were undocumented. But because Hartford is a sanctuary city, which is a region that does not work with ICE for the detainment and deportation of undocumented community members, undocumented protesters were not at risk of deportation.

Alejandro Caceres, an organizer with ICE Out of Austin, a campaign to end Austin law enforcement’s partnership with the federal immigration agency, told Rewire the Supreme Court ruling has left many in Austin’s undocumented community feeling sad and frustrated, but that he’s now more committed than ever to focus his efforts locally.

“I think our organizing mentality is that we can’t do anything about the Supreme Court, but we do have the power to work to end deportations here locally,” Caceres said. “Our campaign has a four-resolution plan, and it ends with a city ID.” Community ID programs for undocumented immigrants have been adopted in various cities nationwide, including some in North Carolina, where this initiative is currently under attack. Under these programs, the city issues identification cards, which can make undocumented communities safer.

“That’s something we’re very recommitted to in the light of the Supreme Court ruling. It’s not a solution to the larger problem, but it’s a solution we can focus our energy on. It’s not citizenship. It’s not work authorization. But it’s something, and it’s one more barrier to stop folks from being deported.”

Like Unzueta, Caceres believes there is more Obama can do before he leaves office; there is more he must do, the organizer said, because without DAPA or the DACA expansion, millions of people are at risk of deportation. This is why ICE Out of Austin signed on to call for a moratorium on deportations.

“Saying, ‘DAPA didn’t pass, there’s nothing I can do,’ just isn’t true, and it’s not holding yourself accountable to the immigrant community. We know he [President Obama] can do more, and that’s why we want to put a stop to the deportations. Those who have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform understand people are being needlessly deported, and if they understand that, they have to agree that we must put a stop to deportations as soon as possible. If folks continue to be deported, that is the most urgent crisis we have and that is the issue we will continue to fight,” Caceres said.

Demanding a stop to deportations is a way to push President Obama to do more, according to advocates. Every immigration win that has come from the Obama administration began with pressure from undocumented organizers and activists, Keller said, and the call for a moratorium on deportations is no different.

“The president said it’s up to us, it’s up to Congress, it’s out of his hands. But if Congress isn’t going to help create a just immigration system, we need to put a halt on deportations until this broken system is fixed,” Keller told Rewire. “There is no justice in separating families. This is punishing people because no one is capable of reform or carrying out any other plan of action.”

Providing Tangible Support

President Obama is commonly referred to as the “deporter-in-chief” by immigrant rights activists. It is such a commonly used phrase, in fact, that in January when asking Hillary Clinton about her immigration policies, journalist Jorge Rivas asked Clinton if she would be the next deporter-in-chief. According to a Fusion report, President Obama has deported more immigrants than any president in history, more than 2.5 million since 2009. And as the Nation reported, under his administration the budget for immigration enforcement increased by 300 percent.

Chances are, Caceres told Rewire, that these deportations will continue no matter who is president.

“It was Democrats who [deported over 2 million people]; it was Democrats who implemented family detention. If this continues, the immigrant community, the undocumented community, Latinos, all kinds of people will no longer see any political party as viable or trust-worthy. Neither party helps us.”

“That’s why the response to the undocumented community from liberals and Democrats can’t just be, ‘We’re going to go out and vote and elect a Democratic president.’ We can’t rely on one party,” Unzueta added.

#Not1More’s policy and legal director said it’s hard to get behind any politician, presidential candidate or otherwise, who isn’t willing to say that they want to dismantle the deportation machine, stop deportations, and cut back on the policies and programs that target immigrant communities. “Saying you will work toward comprehensive immigration reform is not what we need at this moment. Saying you will work on stopping deportations is what the community needs. That is the immediate concern,” she said.

In March, the Latin Post reported that “the Democratic Party leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, in addition to 223 additional members of Congress, filed the amicus brief defending DAPA and DACA’s expanded guidelines.” Advocates say those same politicians and lawmakers must provide tangible support to the undocumented community by helping to stop deportations. Whether that’s publicly pressuring the president to stop deportations after the Supreme Court ruling or lending their voice to individual cases of DAPA-qualified undocumented immigrants who are in detention or deportation proceedings, now is the time, Unzueta said.

Caceres and other members of ICE Out of Austin have been pressuring the Austin Police Department and city council for months to adopt a policy not allowing officers to ask about immigration status. Currently, Austin police officers are allowed to inquire about a person’s immigration status—and no one knows that better than Caceres, who was arrested for refusing to discuss his immigration status with an officer. Working to end these types of policies in their own communities is a way to provide the undocumented community with tangible support, the organizer said.

I think local politicians should really look into their police departments and what policies they have around detaining immigrants,” he said. “If we can’t instate DAPA or stop deportations, we can make it more difficult to deport people. Does your local law enforcement work with ICE? Work to end that. If immigration wants an undocumented person’s information, make sure they have to come with a warrant. Ending the Priority Enforcement Program in your community, that’s tangible support,” Caceres said. “It can make you feel good to write a letter to the Supreme Court saying you’re disappointed in the ruling, but that doesn’t really do anything for us. Tangible support is ending ties with ICE. Letting folks in the community know that if they get arrested, for any reason, they will not be deported.”

In addition, advocates suggest urging local politicians to turn their communities into sanctuary cities. Joining the District of Columbia and 12 states in allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license is also a way for local politicians to provide tangible support, Caceres told Rewire.

Unzueta said she doesn’t know if President Obama will provide a moratorium on deportations and she isn’t sure if politicians who voiced support for DAPA and DACA will step up to the plate to help the undocumented community in this time of need. “Hopeful,” she said, isn’t really in her vocabulary anymore.

“I’ve been doing this a long, long time and I’ve seen so many setbacks. As long as our humanity is debated and we have to fight for basic rights, I don’t get my hopes up because I don’t want to be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean I’m hopeless,” she told Rewire. “I believe in community and I believe in organizing. I believe in the power of an organized community. I choose to invest my hope in that.”

News Law and Policy

Supreme Court Tie in Dollar General Case ‘Clear Victory’ for Tribal Sovereignty

Nicole Knight Shine

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

A U.S. Supreme Court tie on Thursday represented a win for tribal court authority in a case involving a Dollar General employee accused of molesting a 13-year-old more than a decade ago.

The case, Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, hinged on whether the tribe had the authority to resolve civil lawsuits involving non-members—in this case, a $20 billion company—on Native lands.

Justices deadlocked 4 to 4 in their opinion, leaving in place a federal appellate court decision that rejected Dollar General’s challenge to tribal court jurisdiction.

“It’s a clear victory,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, counsel to the nonprofit National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), in an interview with Rewire. NIWRC filed an amicus brief in the case in favor of tribal sovereignty, along with 104 other organizations. “Dollar General spent a lot of time, and lot of money, and a lot of resources attempting to completely eliminate tribal jurisdiction.”

In 2003, Dale Townsend, a Dollar General store manager, allegedly engaged in repeated acts of sexual molestation at the store on a then-13-year-old Choctaw boy, who was placed there by a youth job-training program. The Dollar General store sits on tribal trust lands, agreed to Mississippi Choctaw tribal court jurisdiction regarding its store lease, and operates under a business license issued under Choctaw code.

In 1981, the Court ruled in Montana v. United States that tribal authority extends to non-Natives entering into consensual relationships with a tribe “through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements,” as SCOTUSblog wrote in the case preview.

Dollar General, however, argued the tribal court had no authority. In its appeal, the Tennessee-based corporation invoked a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts lacked judicial power over non-members in criminal cases.

The boy’s case, however, was a civil matter. While the tribe’s attorney general took steps to bar the Dollar General manager from the reservation, the U.S. Attorney did not bring criminal charges against Townsend. The boy’s family is suing Dollar General and the store manager for damages in excess of $2.5 million, a case that can now continue in tribal court.

Advocates had called the closely watched case an “attack on tribal sovereignty.”

“Nowadays, it’s a very good thing when tribal rights and powers are freshly affirmed,” Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, told Rewire in a phone interview Thursday. “Had Justice Scalia been sitting on the Court, this case would have depended on Scalia’s vote. That’s why there was a great deal of concern and anxiety about the outcome of the case.”

The death of conservative Justice Scalia, and Republican gridlock, has left the highest court in the land with only eight justices.

“If Dollar General had been successful … tribal governments would have been stripped of their inherent jurisdiction over the majority of individuals attempting to harm their men, women, and children,” Nagle, counsel for NIWRC, told Rewire.

“In Indian country, our men, women, and children face the highest rates of sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder—higher than any other population in the United States,” she noted. “The U.S. Department of Justice has reported that the majority of these assaults are committed by non-Indians.”

When prosecutors decline to pursue these kinds of crimes, survivors have increasingly turned to civil courts for recourse.  

More than four out of five Native women are subjected to some form of violence, and 56 percent have experienced sexual violence, according to a May 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report.

Mississippi Choctaw Tribal Chief Phyllis Anderson told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court tie was a positive outcome “not only for our tribe, but for all of Indian country.”