Friday, September 17, 2010

Corporations are persons... unless it's inconvenient for them

Basically, they get most of the rights of personhood, but don't get some key responsibilities:

Companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s Nigerian unit aren’t subject to U.S. lawsuits by foreigners seeking damages for human rights violations, a federal appeals court in New York ruled.

A panel of the court ruled 2-1 today that the Alien Tort Statute gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over alleged violations of international law by individuals only, not by corporations.

The decision dismisses claims by a group of Nigerians that Shell aided in the torture and murder of dissidents in Nigeria in the 1990s, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa.

“The principle of individual liability for violations of international law has been limited to natural persons -- not ‘juridical’ persons such as corporations -- because the moral responsibility for a crime so heinous and unbounded as to rise to the level of an ‘international crime’ has rested solely with the individual men and women who have perpetrated it,” Judge Jose Cabranes wrote on behalf of the two-judge majority.

Cabranes said that the Alien Tort Statute, enacted in 1789, allows U.S. courts to hear death and injury claims by non-U.S. citizens connected to violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

From Bloomberg. There's also a separate, partly dissenting opinion:

“The majority opinion deals a substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights,” he wrote. “According to the rule my colleagues have created, one who earns profits by commercial exploitation of abuse of fundamental human rights can successfully shield those profits from victims’ claims for compensation simply by taking the precaution of conducting the heinous operation in the corporate form.”

He agreed that the case should be dismissed, saying the plaintiffs didn’t properly claim Shell intended to cause the Nigerian government to violate human rights.

Hmm. I can't comment on the strength of the plaintiffs' case, but I agree with the first paragraph; the majority ruling is a travesty.

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