|No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.|
The Post-Karadzic Cases: Suing Corporations
The Karadzic decision, as a result of its holding that private parties could commit certain international law violations, opened up the possibility of suing corporations allegedly involved in human rights abuses outside the US. Jurisdiction must first be obtained over the corporation either because the corporation is headquartered in the US or is otherwise doing business in the US. One of the more significant cases is Doe v. Unocal. In this case, the plaintiffs alleged that Unocal was complicit in forced labor, forced relocation and torture carried out by the Burmese military in the building of the Yadana natural gas pipeline. The court found that the evidence demonstrated that Unocal knew that the Burmese military utilized forced labor and benefited from it in connection with the pipeline. However, it decided that Unocal itself did not use the forced labor and therefore could not be held liable. Even this loss demonstrates the importance of these cases: plaintiffs were able to prove that a major oil corporation knew about and benefited from forced labor.
Other recent cases include the Shell case (alleging the involvement of the oil company in the summary execution of Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria thus violating Article 9 of the Universal Declaration) and the Chevron case (alleging the involvement of Chevron in providing helicopters to kill peaceful protesters on an oil platform in Nigeria.)
Several other cases have attempted to move beyond the established civil and political rights and relied instead on Articles 22 and 27 of the Universal Declaration in relation to cultural rights (a case in Indonesia) and Article 28 in relation to environmental damage (a case involving Texaco in Ecuador). However, to date these cases have been unsuccessful. In addition, Article 23.4 of the Universal Declaration regarding the right to form trade unions has been relied upon in cases against sweatshops. The Chentex case (involving a sweatshop in Nicaragua) failed because the court did not consider the right to be at the same level as civil and political rights. According to Michael Ratner, a human rights litigator with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Universal Declaration is unambiguous on the fact that social, economic, and cultural rights are on the same footing both legally and philosophically as civil and political rights.
Using US Domestic Courts in International Human Rights Cases
There is a debate currently occurring among scholars and human rights litigators concerning the propriety of using US domestic courts for international human rights cases, especially in light of the fact that US officials appear to be immune from such actions. As mentioned in a New York Times article of June 21, 2001, the international community may rightly gain the impression that whereas the cold war-paradigm was the US as "global policeman," the post war cold paradigm is that of US as "global attorney." One American scholar and human rights litigator sensitive to this concern is Michael Ratner of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.
Peter Danchin, Columbia University