Press release

Justice Initiative Commends the Supreme Court for Declining to Immunize US Companies for International Law Violations Committed Abroad

Date
June 17, 2021
Contact
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WASHINGTON D.C.—Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against former child slaves in the consolidated cases of Nestlé USA and Cargill v. Doe. In a narrow decision, the Court held that the children did not allege facts sufficient to establish U.S. jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Statute, a law nearly as old as the U.S. itself. The Court reached this conclusion based on the facts alleged in these two cases alone. While the outcome for the plaintiffs is disappointing, the Court declined to adopt the broad immunity claim asserted by Nestle, Cargill, and other corporate actors—that U.S. corporations are entirely immune for complicity in international law violations under the Alien Tort Statute.

While the ruling has been cast in press accounts as a victory for the U.S. companies that limits their legal liability for human rights abuses overseas, today’s decision in fact leaves open a route to greater corporate accountability in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute and other remedial laws enacted by Congress.

The case stems from two lawsuits brought by children who allege that they were trafficked from Mali to work on cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire, where they labored without pay for 12 to 14 hours a day, were provided minimal food and shelter, and subjected to physical abuse. The children allege that the U.S. corporations who are the defendants in the case aided and abetted these abusive practices.

“The U.S. should never be a safe harbor for American corporations to exploit and abuse foreign persons with impunity—especially enslaved children,” said Natasha Arnpriester, a lawyer with the Open Society Policy Center. “Whether forced to toil in the U.S. or beyond its shores, victims deserve the chance to seek redress. While we commend the Court’s recognition that American companies can be held liable for labor practices they benefit from, we believe a more just outcome would recognize the full responsibility they should properly bear for profiting off child labor. The decision also underscores the difficulty victims face in bringing cases that hold companies to account for their use of child labor.” 

Today’s decision comes on the heels of news that child labor has increased for the first time in 20 years. Now, nearly one in 10 children are trapped in forced labor worldwide.

The Open Society Policy Center, an entity that is part of the Open Society network and whose work aligns with the Open Society Justice Initiative's mission, is co-counsel for 21 members of U.S. Congress who filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. In its opinion, the Court cited the brief, noting that it must “defer to Congress” as to “whether and to what extent defendants should be liable under the ATS.”

Congress can act to provide the quickest resolution for victims of human rights abuses and could choose to amend the Alien Tort Statute to guarantee a remedy in these circumstances, given repeated challenges by companies who have long sought to limit corporate liability under this law. Other nations regularly hold their own corporations accountable for international law violations. Countries such as Australia, Germany, and England routinely assert jurisdiction over their corporations, regardless of where they operate. 

Globally, corporations reap large financial benefits from slavery in their supply chains. On the Ivorian coast, over 1.5 million children labor on cocoa plantations, which produce 60% of the world’s cocoa beans, a base ingredient used by multinational chocolate suppliers like Nestlé and Cargill.

The Congressional amicus brief for Nestle USA, Inc. and Cargill, Inc. v. Doe can be found here.

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