South-Western - Management  
Corporate Human Rights
Topic Global Management
Key Words global, human rights, legal
InfoTrac Reference none
News Story

Attorneys in the U.S., on behalf of villagers, labor leaders, and indigenous people overseas, have filed legal action against large corporations under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). This law was passed in 1789, allowing foreigners to sue one another in U.S. courts. It is being used to address human rights violations conducted or enabled by multinational firms.

In 1996, the International Labor Rights Fund filed an ATCA suit against Unocal, charging that it knowingly used slave labor to build a pipeline in Burma. A federal judge dismissed the suit, but a California state judge ordered Unocal to stand trial in September 2002. The plaintiffs will argue that partners in a joint venture can be held responsible for each other's actions.

A case filed against Shell by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights claims that Shell is liable for human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military against the Ogoni people who opposed a Shell pipeline.

Other cases are pending, and corporations are beginning to take notice. A plaintiff's win would compel transnationals to consider bringing their activities overseas into sync with international human rights standards. A big award in a trial would impact the company's stock value, too.


This article focuses on the effort to extend social responsibility to the U.S. legal system. How do you feel about this? Should a U.S. company be held legally responsible in U.S. courts for its human rights violations in other countries, or for the violations of its partners?

Source David Corn, "Corporate Human Rights," The Nation July 15, 2002, p. 31.
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