Feb 27, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Only so Human

While not quite a household name, the words Citizens United are recognizable in the spheres of politics and business today.  This controversial ruling solidified the concept of the corporate entity as we presently know it, and provided a previously unknown set of rights to the corporate creature promising to shape future politics in the US. Just how human these most recently protected entities are

The courts are now set to hear what promises to be the next big case in shaping the role of business in our society.  Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum is rooted in a class action suit from the Ogoni people of southern Nigeria against oil colossus Shell.  Though the specifics of the case are horrible enough in and of themselves, the issue it navigates is far more uncomfortable.  Essentially one of the questions at hand is whether or not corporations can be sued for violations of international law under the Alien Tort Statute.  To date that statute has applied to national and individual actions and the issue here is whether it should also be applicable to “individual” corporations?

As easy as a gut reaction to the facts surrounding Kiobel v Dutch Petroleum might seem, there is also argument against the dangers of US overreach in judging activities which took place wholly outside its territory.  This presumption by the US can, and has, caused a series of international situations in the past and the statute’s application to corporations means that it could cause a great deal more situations in the future.  Is this risk more or less justifiable to take in cases of corporate misdeeds than in the individual and national crimes?

The trends in recent decades in what crimes corporations have been accused of in pursuit of wealth should be a part of our national dialogue, particularly in light of this year’s elections and rhetoric around class warfare.  Since at least the Nuremburg war crimes trials it has been accepted that crimes against human rights may be prosecuted around the world.  The question at hand then is primarily what benefits businesses deserve given their more ‘human’ status in the US, and in what crimes they should be treated as other than human?



  • Great point, Imara! If corporations want the benefit of being human, they have to accept the responsibilities.

  • Thanks Barak. My stance on the state of business ethics and corporate responsibility is pretty obvious I’m sure, but reading even casually on human rights violations in pursuit of profits makes me wonder how this issue has taken as long as it has to arrive before the courts. I suppose if anything positive can be said about Citizens United it is that its contributed to our consideration of these issues.

  • Well, my guess is because corporations have a lot of money to spend to enforce this double standard.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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