Kiobel case: ECCHR supports victims of corporate abuse before US Supreme Court

Nigeria – Torture – Shell

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.

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Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA)

The Alien Tort Claims Act is a US law on the jurisdiction of US courts in cases concerning violations of public international law. It allows for non-US citizens to bring civil actions before US courts in certain situations. This applies even if the events in question occurred outside the United States.

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The law is clear: torture is prohibited under any circumstances. Whoever commits, orders or approves acts of torture should be prosecuted. This is set out in the UN Convention against Torture which has been ratified by 146 states.

Failure to punish and acknowledge torture adds to the trauma of survivors and their families; individual as well as collective traumas persist. The cycle of torture, impunity and further injustice cannot be broken without addressing these crimes, including through the law. This is why – where torture is used as part of a policy – it is important to hold not only low-ranking perpetrators of torture accountable but also their superiors as well as political and military decision makers – including those from politically and economically powerful states.  

In the fight against torture, ECCHR works with survivors and partner organizations to pursue a variety of legal avenues. In some cases, it might be appropriate to bring a case to the International Criminal Court, as with the torture and mistreatment of detainees by British forces in Iraq. ECCHR also takes cases based on the principle of universal jurisdiction in third states like Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden, filing complaints against those responsible for the US torture program in the so-called "war on terror," against the Bahraini Attorney General, and against senior officials within the Syrian intelligence services.


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