[James G. Stewart is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law at Allard Hall, University of British Columbia. His new article, The Turn to Corporate Criminal Liability for International Crimes: Transcending the Alien Tort Statute, can be found here.]
Professor Beth Stephens was a pioneer in thinking about corporate accountability under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and a guiding light for all those emerging into a scholarly field that seemed strangely tolerant of a world without accountability in the corporate realm. When economists and political scientists problematized accountability as too costly or controversial, hers was the authoritative voice reminding us that a world without accountability is perverse. Thus, it is a great honor for me that she agreed to criticize my recent contribution to our common attempt at promoting accountability where there is usually (almost) none.
To begin, I fear that Stephens may have misunderstood my central claim, for which I should take some responsibility. At different points, I get the impression that my article registered with her as a full-throated attack on the ATS and all those who worked so hard to develop it, as if I believed that the entire history of the Statute amounts to little more than a misguided blunder next to the flawless system of corporate criminal accountability for international crimes that was always waiting in plain sight to be deployed. This is far from my position, so I begin by clarifying this misunderstanding in case it has tainted her view of my argument, before addressing some of her more substantive concerns.
I am very much for the ATS, before and after Kiobel. My project is purely comparative. At the beginning of my article, I confirm as much by stating “I prefer to isolate the upsides of corporate criminal liability for international crimes relative to ATS litigation, in the hope of identifying a form of accountability that will operate in a more cohesive and principled fashion with the ATS and other mechanisms moving forward. This, in other words, is a comparison not critique of the ATS, which I view as hugely important.” Although I gesture at this position once or twice later, I suspect that I needed to weave the point into much more of my argument to avoid being misunderstood by my kin.
If my piece gives the impression that I view my ATS friends and colleagues as “short-sighted” in a pejorative sense, this is an unwelcome outcome I attempted to guard against in my drafting. In writing the paper, I was careful to insist that ATS scholars and practitioners “understandably” left out ideas that emanate from the criminal law. My recurrent use of the word “understandably” was intended to recognize that there was never any obvious reason that even the most brilliant experts in ATS would also be familiar with the intricacies of, say, the German theory of aiding and abetting. How could they know? If these issues bubble to the surface of these discussions now, it’s only because German theory has permeated ICL in ways that are largely unthinkable for American civil litigation. No one can see around corners.
There is a deeper insight in this history that is so crucial for questions about corporate responsibility moving forward. David Kennedy is right that we all unavoidably have our intellectual blindspots. To deal with my own, I have tried hard within the article to call repeatedly for alternative, contradictory, interdisciplinary perspectives as part of my wider campaign for greater scholarly investment in these hugely important global questions. At the same time, I have also actively sought out the frank criticism of the world’s leading scholars (in slightly different fields) who see these things differently, as this series of blogs attests. I don’t believe that any meaningful attempt at regulating something as colossal as global commerce can afford to do otherwise—there’s too much our individual disciplinary biases blind us to.
Next, Stephens argues that the “discovery” metaphor I employ to describe the recent debut of corporate criminal liability for international crimes in practice unjustifiably leaves out the valuable work of organizations like the International Commission of Jurists and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable on these questions, but I very much see them as part of the discovery not separate from it. (more…)