Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum

Mike Sacks

Mike Sacks [email protected]

First Posted: 12/15/11 12:53 PM ET Updated: 12/15/11 01:25 PM ET

WASHINGTON — A multinational oil company will be coming to the Supreme Court this winter to argue that corporations are not “natural persons” and therefore cannot be held liable for committing international human rights violations such as torture, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity.

The case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, began far from Washington in the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta. About a dozen Nigerians contend that Shell Oil’s parent company aided and abetted the Nigerian government in its violent suppression of environmental and human rights protesters resisting Shell’s operations there in the 1990s. In September 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit accepted the oil company’s argument that as a corporation it’s immune from being sued in the United States for the overseas conduct. Since then, three other appeals courts, looking at the same law, have held otherwise — in cases brought against Exxon, Firestone and Rio Tinto for similar alleged atrocities.

At first blush, the idea that corporations are not people under the law sounds perplexing. Didn’t the Supreme Court decide almost two years ago in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations have the same First Amendment right to fund political speech as natural persons? If consistency counts for anything, shouldn’t corporations take the same responsibility for their wrongdoings?

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