In April 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued judgment in the Kiobel case in favor of oil company Shell. The case concerns Shell’s responsibility for its Nigerian subsidiary’s involvement in crimes committed by Nigerian security forces. The claim is based on the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a national law which establishes liability under civil law for breaches of international law.
In this case, the court was expected to determine whether the ATCA could also be applied to corporations. In its decision the court refrained from directly addressing the issue of corporate liability, focusing instead on the question of the jurisdiction of US courts. The supreme court found that the ATCA only applies when the corporate activities in question have a connection with the US above and beyond the mere existence of a corporate presence in the country.
The proceedings in Kiobel are a continuation of the high-profile case taken against Shell by relatives of environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa after the firm’s alleged involvement in Wiwa’s execution. In the Kiobel case, the claimants argue that oil company Shell, through its Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria provided transport, accommodation and food for Nigerian security forces, and thus aided and abetted the crimes committed by the forces, which include torture and extra-judicial executions.
In 2011, ECCHR, in cooperation with its partner organizations, submitted two amicus curiae briefs to the proceedings in this case. Together with the other signatories of the brief, ECCHR argued that there is a general, internationally recognized legal principle according to which corporations can be held liable under national laws for human rights violations.
The submission referred to a host of court cases and decisions in which corporations were held either criminally or civilly liable under national laws for violating human rights. Based on this general legal principle, the authors of the brief argued that the application of the ATCA in court proceedings against corporations would be in accordance with international practice.