The U.S. Supreme Court ordered reconsideration of a ruling that would require Rio Tinto Plc to defend against a lawsuit accusing the mining company of contributing to genocide in Papua New Guinea.
Setting aside a lower court ruling today, the justices pointed to their decision last week scaling back the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. That law, also being invoked in the Rio Tinto case, has been a favorite tool of human-rights advocates seeking to hold companies responsible for overseas atrocities.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling threw out a suit accusing two foreign-based units of Royal Dutch Shell Plc of facilitating torture and executions in Nigeria. The majority said the Alien Tort Statute generally doesn’t apply to conduct beyond U.S. borders.
Multinational companies have faced dozens of Alien Tort Statute suits blaming them for human rights violations, environmental wrongdoing and labor abuses.
The lawsuit against London-based Rio Tinto stems from the deaths of thousands of indigenous people starting in 1988 on the island of Bougainville, where Rio Tinto was part of a consortium operating the world’s largest open copper pit.
Rio Tinto is accused of helping the military carry out the killings by providing attack helicopters, munitions and other support. The company denies the allegations.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said parts of the Rio Tinto lawsuit could go forward.
The case is Rio Tinto v. Sarei, 11-649.