On June 24th, a US Supreme Court ruled in favor of corporate giants Nestlé USA and Cargill, which were sued more than a decade ago by six men who say the two companies were complicit in child trafficking and profited when the men were enslaved on cocoa farms as children.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against the plaintiffs, saying they had not proven the companies’ activities in the U.S. were sufficiently tied to the alleged child trafficking.
Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general under the Obama administration, represented the two companies and also argued that they could not be sued for complicity in child trafficking because they are corporations, not individuals.
Katyal’s position could be considered “radical” and “extreme,” taking in mind the nine justice’s skepticism about his defense of the companies—but the court ultimately sided with him.
The plaintiffs, who are from Mali and say they are survivors of child trafficking and slavery in Côte d’Ivoire, filed their lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute, an 18th century law which allows federal courts to hear civil actions filed by foreigners regarding offenses “committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”
In recent years the Court has limited when the law can be invoked in court, arguing it cannot be used to file a lawsuit when the offense was committed “almost entirely abroad,” according to the New York Times.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that the use of child labor on family farms in cocoa-growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana increased from 31 percent to 45 percent between 2008 and 2019.
The corporations “should be held accountable for abetting a system of child slavery,” said Paul Hoffman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
We’re celebrating “the end of slavery” but American companies are still profiting off of slave labor.
— DEFUND & ABOLISH POLICE, REFUND OUR COMMUNITIES (@BreeNewsome) June 17, 2021
EarthRights International, which filed an amicus brief with the court on behalf of the plaintiffs, called the ruling “a giant step backward for U.S. leadership on international law and protecting human rights.”
“The ruling implies that U.S. corporations whose executives decide, from comfortable American boardrooms, to profit from murder, torture, and slavery abroad cannot be sued in U.S. federal courts for violating international law,” said Marco Simons, general counsel for the organization. “This ruling has disturbing implications for future victims of human rights abuses seeking justice against businesses in U.S. courts. This ruling also sets a dangerous precedent, giving corporations impunity for profiting from human rights abuses.”
“In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal today to protect victims of corporate human rights abuses, it is imperative that Congress take action,” said Simons. “We call on Congress to clarify U.S. courts’ responsibilities to enforce international law, reassert U.S. leadership on human rights, and provide remedies to victims of the most serious human rights abuses by enacting binding legislation that holds corporations accountable for violating human rights.”
As such, several things can be concluded from the outcome of the case:
- A corporation cannot be sued for human trafficking, because it is not an ‘individual’.
- Human trafficking is fine, if the majority of the crime was done off U.S. soil, even though it was carried out by a U.S. company.
- And, similarly to the first conclusion – child slavery is also acceptable, if it’s not on U.S. soil.
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