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US Supreme Court rejects Shell torture case in Nigeria

19 April 2013

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court has said US courts cannot hear lawsuits about human rights abuses abroad. The nine justices unanimously said that a court in the state of New York could not hear a case against oil major Shell over alleged abuses in Nigeria. The case was filed by 12 Nigerians who say the firm was complicit in a campaign against protesters from 1992-95.

The ruling on one of the biggest human rights cases in years is being seen as a victory for multinationals.

The plaintiffs in the case accused Shell of complicity in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta two decades ago.

But Chief Justice Roberts said in his opinion that the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed in 1789, could not be used in the case against Shell because the law was not intended to be applied outside the US.

"Nothing in the text of the statute suggests that Congress intended causes of action recognised under it to have extraterritorial reach", Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

But the opinion suggested some cases, with a stronger connection to the US, might be allowed under the law.

The decision does not just benefit foreign-based corporations. US corporations could also find it easier to defend themselves against similar claims, although it could depend on the extent plaintiffs can show actions overseas were directed from the United States, legal experts said. The court also appeared to leave open the possibility of certain claims against individuals over conduct overseas.

The ruling is likely to affect other cases, including those involving similar claims against Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto Plc over its conduct in Papua New Guinea; Exxon Mobil Corp over its activity in Indonesia; and Daimler AG concerning alleged abuses in Argentina. The companies have all vigorously contested the claims.

Esther Kiobel, the named plaintiff in the Royal Dutch Shell case, and now a US citizen, brought her lawsuit in 2002 on behalf of victims of the crackdown in Nigeria, including her husband, Barinem, who was executed in 1995.

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