While various bodies of the UN continuously work on the issue of the human rights law obligations of multinational corporations, the US courts have been grappling with the question as to whether such entities can be held liable for violations before domestic courts. While some observers lamented the death of the corporate liability debate following the 2013 Supreme Court decision Kiobel II, it appears that the discussion is still very much alive. Continuous disagreement among US courts shows that corporate liability for human rights violations is a complicated issue, as a matter of both domestic and international law.
The Arab Bank Case
In December 2015, a panel of the US Court of Appeals (Second Circuit) ruled on the case of Arab Bank, which concerned claims brought against Arab Bank PLC for its alleged role in financing and facilitating armed attacks that took place in Israel between January 1995 and July 2005. The plaintiffs alleged that Arab Bankʹs involvement with payments to the families of ‘martyrs’ incentivized and encouraged suicide bombings and other killings that harmed the plaintiffs. In its judgment, the Second Circuit confirmed the position taken in Kiobel I (2010), in which it held that corporations cannot be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS, 28 U.S. Code § 1350).
Arab Bank was heard by a different panel of the same Court of Appeals that had issued Kiobel I. The panel struggled in deciding whether to follow the Court’s own precedent (Kiobel I) or the subsequent Kiobel II decision of the Supreme Court. In that much-debated decision, the Supreme Court affirmed Kiobel I, but on different grounds, namely that a presumption against extraterritoriality applies to ATS cases, without discussing the original question of corporate liability. The Arab Bank panel identified several ways in which Kiobel II had “cast a shadow on Kiobel I”. It nevertheless decided to follow its own precedent in Kiobel I and left it to “either an en banc sitting of [the Second Circuit] or an eventual Supreme Court review to overrule Kiobel I”.