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The Supreme Court has dealt a blow to human rights advocates. It limited the reach of a 200-year-old law that has been used in modern times to sue people and companies accused of human rights abuses abroad. The court unanimously shut down a lawsuit brought by Nigerian citizens now living in the United States. They had sued Royal Dutch Shell, accusing the oil company of complicity in the torture and killing of protesters in Nigeria.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg reports, the court's decision left many questions unanswered.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The Nigerians, all of whom were granted political asylum in the U.S., sued Shell under the Alien Tort Statute, a law enacted in 1789 by the first U.S. Congress and aimed primarily at pirates. It authorizes the U.S. courts to hear damage suits for violations of international law or violations of treaties signed by the United States.

In recent decades, human rights victims have used the statute to hold human rights abusers accountable in the U.S. courts for torture and other international law violations that occur outside the U.S. Corporations, in particular, have been targeted for their alleged misconduct abroad. But today, the U.S. Supreme Court made that much more difficult.

All nine justices agreed that the claims by the Nigerian victims went too far because the alleged wrongs were committed on foreign territory by a foreign company with no significant presence in the U.S. But the justices did not agree on their reasoning, leaving open questions as to how far a majority of the court is prepared to go in shutting the door to all or most of these cases in the future.

Paul Hoffman represented the victims in the Supreme Court.

PAUL HOFFMAN: From the standpoint of our clients, obviously, this is a terrible blow.

TOTENBERG: But he went on to say that other cases still pending in the lower courts may fare better if they involve U.S. corporations. In an odd way, he said, the court's ruling would make U.S. companies more liable to lawsuits because they, unlike foreign corporations, do have a clear connection to the United States.

Critics of the modern-day use of the Alien Tort Statute were nonetheless elated. John Bellinger served as State Department legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration and filed a brief on behalf of seven major international corporations.

JOHN BELLINGER: It appears that the Supreme Court is trying to close the door, saying that the Alien Tort Statute does not allow actions for injuries that occur in foreign countries. So that's a significant milestone.

TOTENBERG: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for himself and four other justices. Roberts said the Alien Tort Statute was not meant to cover human rights violations when the conduct at issue has no direct connection to the U.S. It's implausible, he said, that the First Congress wanted their fledgling republic - struggling to receive international recognition - to be the first nation to serve as the moral custodian for the world. Therefore, he said, we conclude there is a presumption against suits for wrongdoing abroad unless the claims touch and concern the U.S. with sufficient force.

What sufficient force means exactly, though, remains unclear, since Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote was needed for a clear majority on the reasoning, wrote a concurring opinion that lawyers on both sides of the issue called cryptic and inscrutable. He appeared to want to leave the door open for future cases involving what he called serious international law principles not covered by today's case.

Duke law professor Curtis Bradley says that the court may have been leaving the door open to cases involving U.S. companies that direct human rights abuses from here or turn a blind eye to these abuses from their foreign subsidiaries.

CURTIS BRADLEY: If that's all that the majority is suggesting, it's still - it's ultimately going to cut back on the vast majority of Alien Tort Statute cases, almost all of which involve foreign conduct without serious allegations that there was some sort of orchestration in the United States.

TOTENBERG: But with Kennedy's opaque concurrence, nothing is entirely clear, except that today's ruling was a major loss for human rights advocates.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for four justices that while the Nigerians claim in today's case was too remote, in general, he would not automatically bar suits involving human rights abuses abroad.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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