Skip to main content

Supreme Court holds U.S. rights legacy in the balance

By Vincent Warren, Special to CNN
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 1834 GMT (0234 HKT)
A Supreme Court case will shape the future of the law that lets foreign victims of human rights abuse try cases in U.S. courts.
A Supreme Court case will shape the future of the law that lets foreign victims of human rights abuse try cases in U.S. courts.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vince Warren: At its best, U.S. has been key in championing universal human rights
  • Warren: A longstanding law lets foreign victims of human rights abuse find justice in U.S. courts
  • Supreme Court to rule in international human rights case whether law will stand, he says
  • Warren: If court upholds the law, the world will see U.S. still supports human rights for all

Editor's note: Vincent Warren is the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal and educational organization that works to protect rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(CNN) -- An argument before the Supreme Court on October 1 in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum will have enormous significance. The case concerns the torture of Ogoni leaders in Nigeria, but at stake is the future of the law under which this case was brought, the Alien Tort Statute.

The United States stands at a crossroads. At its best, our nation has played a crucial role in championing human rights throughout the world and pioneering human rights law. At its worst, it has abandoned its lofty ideals in the name of realpolitik and supported dictators and policies that were responsible for horrible abuses.

Vincent Warren
Vincent Warren

Passed in 1789, the Alien Tort Statute was a prescient piece of legislation. It allows foreign victims of human rights abuses in foreign nations to seek civil remedies in U.S. courts, and its animating idea -- that people anywhere should have recourse for violations of the "law of nations" -- was the foundation of our modern understanding of human rights.

In the 1990s, Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) had extensive oil drilling operations in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, a region long plagued with poverty, human rights violations and environmental disaster. A popular movement of the Ogoni people resisting what they saw as reckless oil development in the region was violently suppressed by Nigeria's military dictatorship.

In the suit, the plaintiffs accuse Royal Dutch Shell of helping the former dictatorship in the arrests on false charges and torture of 12 members of the Ogoni tribe, who sought to peacefully disrupt Shell's operations because of the devastating health and environmental effects of unregulated drilling. All the plaintiffs were themselves tortured except Esther Kiobel, who brought her claims on behalf of her late husband, Barinem Kiobel. Kiobel was executed through a sham trial process in which the plaintiffs believe Shell played a central role.

The Supreme Court court accepted Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum last fall after a federal appeals court ruled that the statute could not be used to sue corporations. The justices indicated in February that they might question not just the application of the statute to corporations but whether and under what circumstances it applies to any human rights violations, even by individuals, that take place outside the United States. They ordered the case to be re-argued on exactly that question.

The case has been brought in the United States because of our nation's historical role in promoting the idea of universal rights and in the development of international human rights law.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Eleanor Roosevelt tirelessly worked for, to the stirring oratory of Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Tribunal, mid-century Americans gave voice and visibility to the idea that all people, everywhere, were entitled to certain fundamental rights. Since 1977, the State Department has annually produced Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The international leadership of the past century is a long way from where we find ourselves now. Our own era is defined by a different legacy: one of waterboarding and "torture memos," extraordinary renditions, indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay and targeted killings in countries with which we are not at war. "The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights," Jimmy Carter wrote bluntly in The New York Times in June.

Shell Oil must aid Nigeria workers who were tortured, abused

On this grim and morally and legally compromised horizon, the Alien Tort Statute is still one bright spot for human rights advocacy. In a groundbreaking case in 1980, the family of a 17-year-old Paraguayan, Joelito Filártiga, who had been tortured and killed by a henchman of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, brought and won a civil case against his murderer, Americo Peña-Irala. The young man had been tortured to death because his father opposed the government.

The ruling established that the statute could be used to hold modern torturers accountable for their actions, wherever they are committed. In the wake of the case, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, the Alien Tort Statute developed into a new tool in human rights law. Successful cases were brought against government officials, against non-state actors like Radovan Karadžić in Bosnia-Herzegovina and against multinational corporations before the Second Circuit ruling in Kiobel that disallowed that.

It is this legacy that is at stake in the Kiobel case before the Supreme Court.

The immediate questions before the court on October 1 concern the reach of the Alien Tort Statute and whether it will continue to be possible for people like the Filártigas and the Kiobels to pursue their tormentors and hold them accountable for their heinous acts, and whether corporations can be held to account.

But the larger question is: Does the U.S. want to be a leader or a laggard in upholding international human rights? If the statute is narrowed and its promise of universal accountability curtailed, it will rightly be perceived as yet another step by the U.S. away from its once leading advocacy for human rights.

If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court upholds the Alien Tort Statute, it will signal to the world that we do still believe that people everywhere are entitled to certain fundamental rights and that we will help enforce those rights.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Vincent Warren.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT