Hanna: Unintended Consequences

Print More

Recently, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case asking
whether corporations can be held liable for human rights abuses.
Commentator and Vermont Law School professor explains the case and asks
whether the concept of corporations as "persons" may have some
unintended consequences.

(Hanna) Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of many
activists in Nigeria in the 1990’s who protested the impact of oil
production throughout the Niger Delta. The Nigerian government, in an
attempt to silence protestors like Mr. Saro-Wiwa, engaged in a number of
human rights abuses, including torture. Mr. Saro-Wiwa was jailed,
tried, and eventually hanged because of his opposition.
Saro-Wiwa’s family, along with the families of other executed Nigerians,
claim that Shell Oil sought the aid of the Nigerian government and paid
soldiers to silence the protestors. Shell Oil denies that it had any
involvement in what it characterizes as a dispute between a military
regime and its own people.

The families are suing under the Alien
Tort Statute, which was passed in 1789, and allows foreigners to bring
lawsuits in U.S. federal courts for serious violations of international
human rights laws. The law doesn’t specify who can be sued, leaving
that decision for the courts to make.

The Second Circuit ruled
that corporations could not be sued under the statute, reasoning that
only individuals have traditionally been held liable for violations of
international law. Because such violations are so serious, the blame for
them can only rest with persons, and not corporations. In a brief
footnote, the Second Circuit made clear that the fact that corporations
are persons under American law was irrelevant when considering their
liability for human rights abuses.

I know that a lot of
Vermonters are interested in this question of corporations as persons
since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United in which the Court
held that companies were persons under the First Amendment and thus had
the same free speech rights as individuals. Senator Bernie Sanders
held a well-attended forum on the case last spring, and Ben Cohen and
Jerry Greenfield, co-founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, have been
very active in supporting a constitutional amendment to reverse the
The Nigerian case shows why the Citizens United
decision could have consequences beyond free speech. Many people argue
that if corporations have rights under the First Amendment, then they
should also have responsibilities under international law, including for
human rights violations.
But I doubt that the Supreme Court
will see it that way. The Court has limited Citizen’s United before,
refusing to protect information that AT&T claimed was personal,
finding that while companies may be persons, they don’t have personal
privacy rights or feelings that can be hurt. In the AT&T decision,
the corporation lost. We’ll see what happens in the Nigeria case, but
all of these cases suggest that the Court is likely to pick and choose
when Citizen’s United should be applied outside of political advocacy.
are corporations persons? The answer to that is turning out to be: it
depends! As cases extending the concept of corporate personhood reach
the Court, we are likely to see an inconsistent application, with
corporations wielding a mighty sword in American politics but largely
shielded from the harms they are involved in abroad. We’ll have a
decision in the case by June.

Comments are closed.