Lessons from Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Company: Developing homegrown lawyering strategies around corporate accountability

Authors Meetali Jain, Bonita Meyersfeld

ISSN: 1996-2126
Affiliations: Senior Researcher, Centre for Human Rights and Institute for Comparative and International Law in Africa, University of Pretoria; Associate Professor and Director, CALS, University of the Witwatersrand
Source: South African Journal on Human Rights, Volume 30 Issue 3, 2014, p. 430 – 457


In April 2013, the United States Supreme Court handed down the long-awaited judgment in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, a case alleging corporate exploitation of communities in an oil-rich area of Nigeria. The case examined the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), an old statute allowing non-US citizens to bring claims in US courts for violations of the law of nations. In its judgment, the court limited the application of the ATS. This article explores the holding and reasoning of Kiobel in light of previous ATS jurisprudence, and set against the geopolitical considerations of international human rights frameworks within the US, with a particular focus on what this case means for South Africa and the region. The article queries the continuing need for countries in the Global South, including South Africa, to rely on foreign courts for corporate accountability, particularly given robust domestic legal frameworks that are under-utilised. South Africa, in particular, is best placed to begin the regional dialogue regarding law reform and corporate accountability. Local lawyers and law students must be encouraged to develop creative lawyering strategies in the area of corporate accountability. Finally, the article highlights the need to support communities and individuals most affected by corporate abuse to construct and share their narratives as part of their broader quest for meaningful political and economic justice.