Harvard Law School is hosting in a couple of weeks what is certain to be a very interesting small conference on the Alien Tort Statute. I was lucky enough to be one of the invitees, addressing the issue of corporate liability under the ATS. I address the issue of corporate liability under the ATS, but am actually interested in it from a broader perspective, the "jurisprudential" perspective on the distinct and sharply divided "communities of interpretive authority" over such issues in the ATS as the status of corporate liability. I have written elsewhere recently (in the European Journal of International Law; I think a link directly to the paper in this post here) of the "fragmentation of communities of interpretation and authority" in international law. The ATS seems to me to offer a striking example of that. (Cross posted at OJ and VC.)
Corporate liability can be thought of as a "hinge" issue in ATS jurisprudence - a "hinge" that under (an amalgamated reading of) current holdings serves to link "international law" to "domestic law," as required by the two parts of the ATS. I don't think it is at all a correct reading of either international law or domestic law, but it seems to me an (arguably) accurate reading (there are always variations and cross-currents) of current cases and their holdings on corporate liability, including, for example, the latest Talisman ruling from the Second Circuit.
In addition to that, however, I conclude the paper (this is still in first draft, believe me, and far from even going up on SSRN as a working draft) with a speculation about whether the case law developing around corporate liability in the ATS will remain stable in a world in which the US chooses decline and allows the emergence of a genuinely multipolar world, a world in which China is a much, much bigger player, as in creditor and debtor:
I do not think, however, that the final chapter has been written on corporate liability under the ATS. In the real world, I do not think that the pushback has begun to be felt in the US or in US courts. At that point, I suspect that some will wonder whether (from the standpoint of the 'progressive integrity' of international law, the perspective I am freely (and perhaps overly-imaginatively) attributing to a Professor Greenwood or Crawford on the basis of their Talisman declarations, not from a vastly more skeptical position such as my own) the jurisprudence of the ATS has not actually undermined a systematic development of international law norms with respect to civil liability, tort liability, corporate liability, and specific bodies of norms such as labor or the environment. The future historian of international law might well conclude that the era of ATS jurisprudence, far from advancing broadly shared norms, actually undermined the possibility of firmly enacting them, in what turned out to be a final gasp of US legal hegemony, before the Era of US Indebtedness, ‘Choosing Decline’, and Multipolarity set in.
What happens, for example, when ATS suits start to be brought against Chinese corporations, for actions having no connection to the US save for the ATS itself? For very, very serious, uncontestable even abuses of labor, land, environment and other things in, say, Africa. The strictly legal questions would have been long settled under the jurisprudence of the ATS in lawsuits against MNCs based out of the US itself, Europe, Canada, or elsewhere in the industrialized democratic world (and whether those countries liked it or not). What happens then? The US government has taken a remarkably hands off attitude toward such litigation, under presidents of both parties – offering statements of interest on occasion, but not typically seeking, on some principled basis, simply to nip such litigation in the bud, rigorously and in every case in which there is no greater traditional jurisdictional base of the United States apart from the ATS itself, as contrary to the foreign policy interests or prerogatives of the political branches.
Were China to weigh in, down the road, in a world of a debtor US, would the rules being made today remain stable? I have my doubts. I raise China as the most obvious real-politik example of a party that might have both the means and the inclination to make its displeasure known by rattling, even just a bit, the debtor’s chains in the global market of Treasury debt. What the might the US government, for example, say in a statement of interest to a court, in response to a court following well-established ATS precedents of corporate and secondary liability, but this time in a case against a Chinese corporation, in the world as newly defined by Secretary of State Clinton in one of her early statements – declining in particular to get too worked up about human rights as central to the US relationship with China?
The rules currently being evolved by US courts, departing from norms as understood by much of the rest of the world, seem to me rules of corporate liability made for a world in which the “universal” and the “international” can be imagined to be enacted through the ATS – mostly, however, because there is still an American hegemony. One can call that hegemony “universal” and “international,” I suppose – provided, however, that one cloisters oneself as strictly as possible within those particular communities of authoritative legal interpretation in which ‘universal’ and ‘hegemonic’ categories do not brush up against each other and catch each other out. Ironies and antinomies of the ATS - yet again.