High-level Discussion Held at American University Washington College of Law on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum

Experts Disagree on Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses Abroad


WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2012
—American University Washington College of Law held an expert panel Oct. 2 to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court re-hearing of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

Co-sponsored by EarthRights International, the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, and the Program on International and Comparative Environmental Law, the discussion recapped and analyzed the oral arguments held yesterday at the U.S. Supreme Court, including discussion of the implications of thecase for human rights, environmental justice, and the future of the Alien Tort Statute.

“Today’s discussion helped to sharpen the issues discussed in yesterday’s Kiobel arguments,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. ”The panelists had a vibrant discussion of their different visions of the role of U.S. law and courts to hold human rights violators accountable for their actions outside the United States. We are thrilled to have had an illustrious panel including Paul Hoffman, who argued for the Plaintiffs before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, as well as such distinguished speakers as former State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger, Heritage Foundation Fellow Andrew Grossman, and Earthrights International Founder Katie Redford. While the experts disagreed, this discussion and the arguments yesterday showed hope for the future of human rights claims in U.S. courts.”

Preview the remarks from the speakers below or view the event webcast.

  • Katie Redford, co-founder and U.S. office director, EarthRights International:
    “The law at issue in this case is a powerful tool, and I’ve seen how it has made a difference in the lives of many, including victims of torture, rape, and forced labor in Burma and targets of religious persecution in Sudan,” said Katie Redford, co-founder and U.S. office director of Kiobel amicus EarthRights International. “This law is incredibly important for more than just the people in the courtroom today because it makes corporations think twice before they cut corners and curb human rights standards to improve their bottomline. It allows the same corporations that enjoy First Amendment rights, to be held to the same responsibilities as human beings.”
  • Paul Hoffman, lead counsel for the petitioners; partner, Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplaw, Harris, Hoffman & Harrison:
    “We argued Monday that corporations and individuals can be brought before U.S. courts for violations of international law under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. Our argument is in step with American jurisprudence and the Court’s own precedent. Eight years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held inSosa v. Alvarez-Machainthat foreign plaintiffs can bring suit under the ATS for these types of human rights crimes. We hope that the Supreme Court will uphold its 2004 decision inSosa,and vindicate our view inKiobel, when it hands down its decision later this term.”
  • John Bellinger, partner, Arnold & Porter; former legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State:
    “The extraterritorial application of the Alien Tort Statute to allow US courts to judge the actions of foreign governments and foreign corporations has caused significant diplomatic friction between the US Government and its allies. The assertion of international civil jurisdiction over persons and acts with no nexus to the United States also raises concerns of reciprocity. The US Government would object strongly if Germany or the UK were to allow civil suits against US officials or US defense contractors for their actions in third countries, such as US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.”
  • Andrew Grossman, litigator at BakerHostetler; legal fellow, The Heritage Foundation:
    “The Court finally seems to recognize that the Alien Tort Statute doesn't open U.S. courts to all the world's claims, even those involving conduct far removed from our shores. Indeed, all of the eight justices who spoke at argument endorsed ways to limit the reach and breadth of the ATS, from a requirement that plaintiffs try first in countries that have a relationship to their cases to a complete bar on claims arising from conduct outside of the United States. While there are good policy reasons to hold that the ATS applies only to U.S. territory, the best reason is that that result is actually required by the original meaning of the statute, which was directed at a narrow class of "safe conduct" violations suffered by foreign persons within the United States. The Court's questioning demonstrates that a majority of the justices, and in particular Justice Scalia, understand this and understand that the original meaning resolves all of the serious policy concerns raised by out-of-control ATS litigation.”

For more information about the event, contact Lauren Bartlett, director, Local Human Rights Lawyering Project, American University Washington College of Law, 202-895-4556.

Media inquiries can be directed to Megan Smith, public relations coordinator, 202-274-4276.