The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the US justice system does not have jurisdiction to determine whether oil giant Shell was complicit in acts of torture by the Nigerian government.
In a unanimous ruling, the nine justices rejected a collective complaint by 12 plaintiffs -- relatives of Nigerians executed by the former military government in Lagos -- who accused the Anglo-Dutch company of complicity in human rights violations.
In Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the oil giant is 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 is 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 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 (ATS), an arcane 200-year-old law which allows non-citizens to sue in US courts for violations of international law.
However, the justices ruled that "nothing in the ATS's text evinces a clear indication of extraterritorial reach," limiting the possibility of foreign victims to sue individuals or corporations in US courts for human rights violations committed abroad.
The 1789 statute was barely used for two centuries before being resurrected in the 1970s by human rights activists to pursue international lawsuits.