The unsettled question of whether corporations may be held liable for international human rights abuses may finally, after a tortuous deviation, be addressed by the Supreme Court in the case of Jesner v. Arab Bank.
The case, on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, contains allegations that the Arab Bank processed financial transactions on behalf of groups linked to terrorism. The plaintiffs are victims of terror attacks. Among other things, plaintiffs alleged that the Jordan-based bank “knowingly used its New York branch to collect donations, transfer money, and serve as a ‘paymaster’ for international terrorists.”
Central to the case is the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows United States federal district courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The phrase “violations of the law of nations” has been construed by federal courts to cover human rights violations that are “obligatory and universal.” Examples of such acts have included extrajudicial killing, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, forced labor, and other similarly peremptory norms.
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