Are US Corporations Above the Law?

By siding with major food corporations over six Malian former child slaves who were seeking compensation under US tort laws, the US Supreme Court has sent a dangerous message. Apparently, US corporations will not be held to the same standards of decency and human rights abroad as they are at home.

NEW YORK – Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, argued that the pursuit of private interests – profits – will invariably promote the common good. That may be true in some situations, but obviously not always. Just as banks’ pursuit of profit led to the 2008 financial crisis, it was Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies’ greed that produced the opioid crisis, and Texaco’s support of the Franco regime that helped the fascists triumph in the Spanish Civil War.

This litany of perfidy could easily be extended. But among the worst abuses committed by greedy corporations today is childhood slavery. Chocolate lovers around the world may not know it, but some of their guilty pleasures may have been produced by child slaves.

Nestlé, Cargill, and other food companies facing such allegations have avoided answering for them in open court. Because they or their subsidiaries are headquartered in the United States, they have been able to argue that they are not accountable for misdeeds committed in faraway Africa. They do this knowing full well that there is no effective legal system in the countries where children are being exploited.

Moreover, even if a legal judgment was to come down against these companies abroad, they would pay little. They would simply move their operations elsewhere, and it would be hard, if not impossible, for a small, poor country to enforce any judgment rendered.

These issues were all in play in a case before the US Supreme Court this year. In Nestle USA, Inc. v. John Doe I, et al./Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe I, et al., the court ruled against six Malians who were seeking compensation from Nestlé and Cargill for their suffering as former child slaves. Rather than ruling on the merits of the case, the court issued an 8-1 decision on the narrower legal question of whether an American firm can be held accountable for injuries done to others abroad. The US Alien Tort Statute, the court held, cannot be applied “extraterritorially,” because that would amount to an extension of US law beyond US boundaries.