Skip to main content

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

By Vincent Warren, Special to CNN
updated 2:34 PM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
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
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT