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Can Corporations Accused of Abetting Torture Abroad Be Sued in US?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- On Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear a challenge brought by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs who say a Shell oil subsidiary aided and abetted acts of murder, rape and systematic torture by the Nigerian government in the early 1990s.

At issue is whether corporations can be sued in U.S. courts for violations of human rights committed abroad.

Human rights groups hope the high court will reverse a 2010 lower court decision that held that corporations -- unlike individuals -- cannot be sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a federal law that allows foreigners to bring lawsuits in U.S. federal court for violations of international human rights law.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who were associated with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, allege in court papers that the Nigerian military, assisted by Shell’s operations in the region, “engaged in a widespread and systematic campaign of torture, extrajudicial executions, prolonged arbitrary detention, and indiscriminate killings constituting crimes against humanity to violently suppress the movement.”

In court papers, lawyer Kathleen M. Sullivan, representing Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a holding company for Shell, says the lower court was right to find that international law does not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses.

Sullivan says the Nigerian plaintiffs “fail to demonstrate that international law, with the requisite specificity and universal acceptance, imposes responsibility on corporations for the offenses alleged here. ”

Ralph G. Steinhardt, a law professor at George Washington Law School, says the lower court got it wrong.

“The lower court in this case was alone among federal courts of appeals in concluding that corporations never -- under any circumstance -- have obligations under international law,” says Steinhardt who filed a brief representing international law scholars on behalf of the Nigerian plaintiffs.  “Four other courts of appeals have explicitly reached an opposite conclusion.”

The United States government has filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs.

“The United States has taken the position that whatever complexities may arise in future cases, the absolute rule adopted by the court of appeals in this case is wrong, ” says Steinhardt.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio