The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the US justice system does not have the jurisdiction to determine whether oil giant Shell was complicit in acts of torture by the Nigerian government.
The highly anticipated decision, slammed by rights activists, limits foreign victims' ability to sue corporations in US courts for suspected human rights breaches committed abroad.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court's nine justices rejected a collective lawsuit by 12 plaintiffs -- relatives of Nigerians executed by the former military government in Lagos -- who accused the Anglo-Dutch company with complicity in human rights violations.
The oil giant was accused of being an accomplice to torture, extrajudicial executions and crimes against humanity by the Nigerian government between 1992 and 1995 in the Niger Delta region.
It was alleged to have helped the former dictatorship arrest and torture 12 members of the Ogoni tribe, who had sought to peacefully disrupt oil development because of its health and environmental impacts.
The legal argument -- re-examined by the top court on October 1 -- pivoted on whether foreign plaintiffs have a right to file suit in American courts against US corporations accused of human rights violations.
Plaintiffs had invoked the Alien Tort Statute, an arcane 200-year-old law that allows non-citizens to sue in US courts for violations of international law.
The 1789 statute was barely used for two centuries before being resurrected in the 1970s by human rights activists to pursue international lawsuits.
However,"there is no clear indication of extraterritoriality here," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
"Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices," he added, noting that if Congress were to determine otherwise, a more specific statute would be required.
"This presumption serves to protect against unintended clashes between our laws and those of other nations which could result in international discord."
Justice Anthony Kennedy said other cases could come up "with allegations of serious violations of international law principles protecting persons... and in those disputes, the proper implementation of the presumption against extraterritorial application may require some further elaboration and explanation."
Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, welcomed the ruling, saying it prevents US courts from being injected into far-off political disputes.
"The Supreme Court wisely decided what should be obvious: that Congress has not made the US a World Court for all the human rights abuses across the globe," Kontorovich said.
But rights groups, which sided with the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling troubling and disappointing.
"Human rights abusers may be rejoicing today, but this is a major setback for their victims, who often look to the United States for justice when all else fails. Now what will they do?" said Human Rights First president Elisa Massimino.
The Center for Constitutional Rights said that over the past three decades, the Alien Tort Statute has shone a light on human rights abuses around the world.
"Today's decision moves one step closer to shutting the court room doors to victims of war crimes and torture," it said.
Still, cases brought against other defendants -- including corporations -- whose actions "touch and concern the territory of the United States with sufficient force" can still be held accountable for their actions outside the country, CCR added.
"This ruling is not a grant of immunity from liability."