Human Rights Will Survive Kiobel
This is a tough loss for the human rights advocacy community, ending an era that began with the Second Circuit’s rediscovery of the Alien Tort Statute in its 1980 decision in Filartiga v. Pena. As Julian highlights below, Justice Kennedy may have left the door ajar to future claims, but only barely. Even Breyer’s concurrence — the rejection of the claim was unanimous, which must make it hurt a little more — sets a bar of a “distinctly American interest”, which may translate in the days of compartmentalized multinationals to the presence of US citizen victims. Lots of claims are going to get thrown out in Kiobel’s wake.
Does this mean that corporations can turn a blind eye to human rights? Not a chance.
Human rights is now a core component of corporate social responsibility, which, at least among major transnational corporations, is no longer optional. The United Nations is moving to bring human rights directly to bear on corporations through such initiatives as the U.N. Global Compact and the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (see John Ruggie’s important new book on the latter). Accountants, shareholders, NGOs, and other private standard-setters are increasingly vigilant to human rights compliance (think Apple and Foxconn to highlight only one recent example). Human rights is being internalized in the corporate psyche, a process not contingent on the survival of the ATS.
There may even be alternative legal avenues. State tort law presents some promising possibilities. Kent Greenfield suggests reviving corporate “ultra vires” doctrine as another possible entry point for human rights. The ATS helped police and facilitate corporate compliance with international law, but other forms of discipline will work to help fill the gap created by its eclipse.