Supreme Court: Foreigners can't sue corporations in America for violating international law overseas

Supreme Court: Foreigners can't sue corporations in America for violating international law overseas

gavelThe Supreme Court yesterday blocked a lawsuit by Nigerians who sought to sue a Dutch oil company and other corporations in American courts over alleged abuses in Nigeria that occurred under a former military dictator. These abuses, which allegedly violated international law, were supposedly assisted by company employees who provided Nigerian troops “with food, transportation,” etc., and allowed “the Nigerian military to use” company “property.”

As the Supreme Court put it, “Nigerian nationals residing in the United States, filed suit in federal court under the Alien Tort Statute [ATS], alleging that respondents—certain Dutch, British, and Nigerian corporations—aided and abetted the Nigerian Government in committing violations of the law of nations in Nigeria. The ATS provides that ‘The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.’”

In its ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the Supreme Court concluded that the Alien Tort Statute does not reach conduct within foreign countries (as opposed to piracy on the high seas), like the abuses the Nigerians alleged occurred in their country. It reached this conclusion in light of the strong legal presumption against extraterritorial application of U.S. law, and the international tensions and conflicts with U.S. foreign policy that could be created by approving U.S. lawsuits over such foreign conduct (the Supreme Court cited the Morrison case, in which my think-tank filed an amicus brief urging the Court to curb extraterritorial application of U.S. law to enrich trial lawyers at companies’ expense.). An appeals court had earlier dismissed the lawsuit for a very different reason, ruling that international law holds only individuals (including corporate employees) liable, not the corporations they work for. The Nigerians had appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

Letting foreigners sue in U.S. courts over alleged violations of “international law” is a very bad idea, since it often involves alleged violations of “customary international law” not contained in any treaty ratified by the U.S., including foreign rules that could conflict with our own Constitution. What constitutes “customary international law” is fuzzy and politically manipulable. Left-wing lawyers take vague international treaties and interpret them as mandating their ideological wish lists, like restricting criticism of Islam and minority religions as “hate speech,” banning Mother’s Day as sexist, and mandating quota-based affirmative action. For example, the CEDAW equal-rights treaty has been construed by an international committee as requiring “redistribution of wealth,” “affirmative action,” “gender studies” classes, government-sponsored “access to rapid and easy abortion,” and “the application of quotas and numerical goals.” Never mind that most countries don’t even have affirmative action. Customary international law is interpreted by left-wing lawyers and jurists as barring sensible American practices designed to protect crime victims, like denying parole to criminals because they have repeatedly committed murder in especially hideous and premeditated ways. For example, New Zealand was pressured to end life without parole for adults who commit “the worst” murders, based on a supposed rule of “customary international law” against life imprisonment without parole. Citing Spanish law and supposed international human-rights norms, Spain now refuses to extradite terrorists who plot mass murder to the United States unless the U.S. agrees not to seek life imprisonment without parole.

Congress has passed other laws that provide redress for victims of clear-cut human-rights violations, like the Torture Victim Protection Act, which provides detailed definitions of torture and other egregious offenses, specifically states who may be liable, and creates a rule of exhaustion to eliminate premature lawsuits in the U.S. over grievances that could be resolved in the country in which they allegedly occurred. (Forcing people to be tried overseas is one of the objections against King George III cited in America’s Declaration of Independence, so the U.S. should be reluctant to force foreigners to be tried in our courts, thousands of miles from where they may live or exculpatory evidence may be located.)

Clear definitions are important, because left-wing UN officials have misguidedly defined as “torture” a variety of commonplace, generally-applicable public policies, public-health safeguards, and principles of family law. For example, the UN “special rapporteur on torture,” Argentina’s Juan E. Méndez, “seeks to define torture” to encompass “restrictions on access to abortion” and “laws requiring sex change surgery before legal sex reassignment, laws that permit a parent to lose custody of a child solely because they use drugs, and mandatory HIV testing for ‘sex workers.’” Clear definitions of what constitute violations of the “law of nations” (e.g., human-rights violations) are absent from the ATS.

In yesterday’s ruling, all nine Justices voted to dismiss the lawsuit. But the four liberal justices disagreed with the Court’s reasoning for doing so. Still, the Court’s unanimity in voting to dismiss the lawsuit was a surprise to some legal commentators, as law professor Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University has noted.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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