Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum: A New Case for Human Rights


By: Brittany Hoover, Junior Editor

The United States Supreme Court plans to rule on a controversial human rights case this year that has many human rights activists anxious for a result. This controversial case was first argued in October in the second circuit and involved a lawsuit brought by Nigerians against Royal Dutch Petroleum under an 18th-century anti-piracy law that allows foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for human rights abuses occurring overseas. “The stakes are seen as huge by international human rights groups, because should the court void the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, it would prevent activists from trying to hold multinational corporations accountable for their behavior overseas in American courts.”[1]

The Supreme Court will decide exactly how far the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) should reach and what types of cases the act actually provides a remedy for.[2] The ATS  which provides, in relevant part, 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.” The ATS was enacted as a part of the Judiciary Act of 1789, and has rarely been invoked in any court cases.

1980, in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit gave teeth to the i statute when it found that the ATS conferred jurisdiction over a lawsuit brought by one Paraguayan national for torture that occurred in Paraguay.[3]

Only one other case has been brought to U.S. courts which is Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, a case brought by a Mexican national against other Mexican nationals who kidnapped the plaintiff so he could stand trial for drug charges in the U.S.[4] In Sosa, the Court held that lawsuits could be brought under the ATS for certain International violations; it did not discuss how far the ATS should expand to other countries.

In the current Kiobel cases, twelve Nigerian citizens are suing three European oil companies for various human rights violations including aiding the Nigerian military in killing and torturing civilians who protested oil exploration in Nigeria.[5] For the court to allow the ATS to expand to all foreign individuals would be a huge victory not only for these plaintiffs but all victims of human rights violations. However, the simple question of  “What business does a case like this have in the courts of the United States?” provides an insight into the Court’s hesitation to expand the ATS to cover victims all over the world.[6] After the first round of oral argument, the Court ordered a second round of briefing and oral argument, on the question of “whether a case like Kiobel can be brought in U.S. courts at all?”[7]

These questions are valid for national security reasons. Many nations already feel as though the U.S. tries to expand its jurisdiction too far and involves itself with too many foreign issues. In addition, the U.S. has its own domestic issues to worry itself with. With the memory of Somalia and other failed missions to help people in foreign countries, the Court may not want to turn the United States court system into a jurisdiction open to all with grievances. The European companies involved are citizens of European countries that are supposed to adhere to the rules of the U.N. If these plaintiffs have a grievance with the companies, then they should sue the companies in European courts.

However, the stories are compelling and the injustice is so great that many people want to see the U.S. as the beacon of righteousness, fearing that foreign courts do not provide adequate justice. The court may also worry about upsetting European nations or other future nations by conferring jurisdiction to private individuals. The court is trying to exert jurisdiction over companies that do not readily engage in business in the U.S.  The best course of action would be to allow some sort of test for jurisdiction similar to that of minimum contacts where the parties will have to prove that the defendants had some connection with the U.S. before they can be sued under U.S. laws. This will limit the number of cases that could burden the judicial system while giving a legitimate reason for the court finding jurisdiction over the defendants in the case. Hopefully, the court can find a middle ground that can ensure that victims of human rights violations have their day in court.


[1] Steven Rosenfield, 8 Civil Liberties Cases Supreme Court Will Tackle in 2013, Alternet,

[2] Kali Borkoski, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum: What’s at stake, and for whom?, Alternet,


[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.


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