Corporate Human Rights Accountability: The Objections of Western Governments to the Alien Tort Statute

Uta Kohl

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The almost two decade-long bonanza of civil litigation concerning gross human rights violations committed by corporations under the US Alien Tort Statute 1789 was scaled back by the US Supreme Court in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum in April 2013. The court restricted the territorial reach of human rights claims against transnational corporations by holding that the presumption against extra-territoriality applied to the Act. Thus Shell, the Dutch/British defendant, and the role it played in the brutal suppression by the Nigerian military of the Ogoni peoples' protest movement against the environmental devastation caused by oil exploration, lay outside the territorial scope of the Act. Legal accountability must lie in a State with a stronger connection with the dispute. While this article briefly engages with the Supreme Court decision, its main focus is on the attitude of Western governments to the corporate human rights litigation under the ATS as articulated in their amicus briefs. In these briefs they objected to the statute's excessive extraterritoriality and horizontal application of human rights to artificial non-State actors. In these two respects corporate ATS litigation created significant inroads into the conventional State-centric approach to human rights and thus provided an opportunity for more effective human rights enjoyment. This article tests the validity of the objections of Western governments to corporate human rights obligations under the ATS against the norms of public international law and against the substantive demands arising out of the shortfalls of the international human rights enforcement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)665-697
Number of pages33
JournalInternational and Comparative Law Quarterly
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jul 2014


  • Alien Tort Statute
  • amicus briefs
  • artificial non-State actors
  • extraterritorial enforcement
  • horizontal enforcement
  • human right
  • jurisdiction
  • Klobel


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