Do corporations have free reign to kill people?

An editorial in the Feb. 25 New York Times asked an interesting question:

Should Corporations Have More Leeway to Kill Than People Do?

Peter Weiss wrote about a U.S. Supreme Court case that will be heard next week with potential ramifications for American and international law, and for corporate responsibility for human rights.

"The justices will be asked to decide whether the corporations to which they have been extending the rights of individuals should also be held accountable for crimes against human rights, just as individuals are."

The case arises under a 1789 American law known as the Alien Tort Statute, which has been interpreted to mean that foreigners who commit crimes abroad in violation of international law can be held accountable in the United States if they are present in the U.S.

Dozens of successful alien tort claims cases have been brought in American courts against individuals and eventually against corporations. 
Yet in September 2010, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that only individuals, and not corporations, can be sued under the statute; Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the alien torts ruling, which could produce its first decision regarding corporate personhood since the controversial Citizens United.

The question of whether foreign corporations doing business in the United States can be sued here for crimes committed elsewhere has allied international businesses against human rights advocates. Four governments have also chimed in: Britain, the Netherlands and Germany for the corporate defendant, and the United States on the side of the Nigerian plaintiffs. The plaintiffs are members of the Ogoni people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where Royal Dutch Shell had extensive oil operations in the 1990s via contracts signed with the military dictatorship that held power.

"The region is widely considered a zone of calamity, in terms of both environmental and human rights. In the suit, Royal Dutch Shell was accused of assisting the Nigerian government in torturing and, through sham trials, executing Ogoni activists who had threatened to disrupt Shell’s operations because of the devastating health and environmental effects of unregulated drilling practices. The plaintiffs are either victims of torture themselves or had relatives who were executed. Esther Kiobel, the plaintiff after whom the suit is named, is the widow of a victim."

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