US: Alien Tort Statute essential to uphold company liability for human rights violations

US: Alien Tort Statute essential to uphold company liability for human rights violations - Digital

In October, ARTICLE 19 alongside Access Now, EFF, Centre for Long-Term Cybersecurity, Privacy International, and Professor Ronald Deibert submitted an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court in the Nestle USA v John Doe I arguing that corporations should be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) for aiding and abetting human rights violations by repressive governments.  

The Nestle USA v John Doe I case concerns a class action lawsuit filed against Nestle USA, Inc., and Cargill, Inc. (the defendant companies), alleging that they are liable under the ATS for aiding and abetting child slavery in the Ivory Coast. It alleges that the companies are aware that child slave labour is a problem in the Ivory Coast yet continue to provide financial support and technical farming aid to farmers who use forced child labour. The plaintiffs are seeking an extraterritorial application of the ATS.  

In the amicus, ARTICLE 19 and others claim that the case does not only concern slave labour and children. Its outcome will also have profound implications for  millions  of  Internet  users  around  the  world. It points out that while many technologies developed, licensed, and sold by American companies are tremendously useful to uncontroversial customers, other technologies – or sometimes even the same technologies when deployed by repressive regimes – can facilitate horrific human rights abuses. 

In the digital age, US corporate complicity in human rights violations is a widespread and growing issue, especially as corporate accountability mechanisms have proved ineffective. ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called for the responsible development and deployment of technology. We do not believe that companies should be held liable for violations of international law under ATS solely because their technologies are misused by governments and other bodies to violate human rights. However, when American companies put profits over basic human well-being and people in foreign countries are seriously harmed or even killed by those choices, legal accountability is necessary.  

In the brief, we support the arguments of the plaintiffs in the case and emphasise that their claim is supported by the policy underlying the ATS, as well as internationally, by the United Nations’ policy on business and human rights. The ATS aligns with the United Nation’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is therefore a positive step towards corporate liability for direct and complicit human rights violations. In the brief, we highlighted that the ATS enforces – through a binding judicial process – human rights standards for US corporations which fail to hold themselves accountable for human rights violations through internal mechanisms.  

The brief argues that: 

  • The Supreme Court should not facilitate the “avoidance of appropriate accountability”.  
  • The Supreme Court should not block further access to remedies for the victims of repressive governments and American technology companies that aid and abet those governments. 
  • The Supreme Court must preserve the ATS as a statutory mechanism for redress as voluntary mechanisms have proven inadequate. 

Human rights abuses powered by American technology companies must not be ignored. ARTICLE 19 urges the US Supreme Court to preserve corporate liability under the ATS and hold American companies accountable for their active complicity in gross human rights violations by repressive governments. 


Read the amicus brief