ByÂ Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON–TheÂ US Supreme CourtÂ opened its 2012-13 term on Monday with oral argument in a case examining whether a foreign corporation can be sued in a US court for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights abuses in a foreign country.
The case marks the second time in eight years the high court has taken up an appeal involving theÂ Alien Tort StatuteÂ (ATS), a law dating from the first Congress in 1789.
The statute allows noncitizens to sue in US courts for human rights violations and other breaches of international law. What the law doesnâ€™t state explicitly is whether the ATS applies everywhere â€“ or merely to wrongful conduct within the US or that is otherwise linked to the US.
The question before the court is whether to uphold a lawsuit filed by 12Â NigerianÂ citizens againstÂ Royal Dutch PetroleumÂ for allegedly aiding and abetting in human rights abuses by the Nigerian government and its armed forces 20 years ago.
Lawyers for the oil company argue that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS. They are also urging the high court to declare that the ATS does not extend to conduct by foreign corporations in a foreign country.
Human rights lawyers counter that there is nothing in the text of the ATS limiting its reach.
Several justices seemed reluctant to embrace a broad reading of the statute to allow foreign corporations to be sued for alleged actions in a foreign country harming foreign citizens.
Justice Anthony KennedyÂ asked whether such a position might come back to haunt the US and its interests. He asked whether under the same legal principle a US corporation that committed an international law violation in theÂ United StatesÂ could be sued in any court in the world.
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