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John Doe and others v. Nestle USA and others

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US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit

Case No. 10 – 56739

4 September 2015

Instrument(s) Cited:
The Alien Tort Statute 28 U.S.C. § 1350
Statute of the International Court of Justice
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

Case Summary:

Four US multinational corporations that buy and sell cocoa imported from Cote d’Ivoire were sued for aiding and abetting child slavery under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows for foreign victims of human rights violations to seek compensation in US courts. The plaintiffs in the case were three adults who were forced to work on Ivorian cocoa plantations as children and the international human rights organisation Global Exchange, which works on issues of social, economic and environmental justice. 

The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants had aided and abetted child slavery by providing financial and technical assistance to Ivorian cocoa farmers, despite knowledge of the child slavery and exploitation situation in the country. The defendant companies asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit arguing that there is no universal rule prohibiting corporations from aiding and abetting slavery and because the claim does not show enough evidence indicating that the companies’ actions aided and abetted slavery.

Issue and resolution:
Child slavery. Whether the lawsuit against the companies can proceed. The Court found that corporations could be liable under the Alien Torts Statute and that the plaintiffs had shown enough evidence to support their allegation of aiding and abetting child slavery so it ruled the case against the corporations can proceed.

Court reasoning:
The Court considered whether corporations could be liable under the ATS and decided that, although international human rights law is primarily concerned with the conduct of States, due to the universal prohibition of slavery, it must also apply to corporations. It would go against the nature of the prohibition if corporations were exempt.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs failed to show the companies had aided and abetted child slavery. The Court considered whether the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged elements of a claim of aiding and abetting slavery. As buyers of cocoa from Ivory Coast, the companies have an exclusive relationship with the farms and a certain level of control over the cocoa market. The plaintiffs argued that this means that the companies’ economic influence could have been used to stop the use of child slavery however the defendants continued to seek the cheapest source of cocoa, putting profit before human welfare. The plaintiffs also put forward that although the defendants did not have the intention of harming children, they had aided and abetted child slavery by offering Ivorian cocoa farmers financial and technical support to maintain cheap sources of cocoa. The Court accepted that these arguments sufficiently illustrate elements of aiding and abetting slavery for the allegations to be considered in a full trial.

The Court also noted that the defendants had previously lobbied against US legislation that would have required manufacturers ensure chocolate could be labelled ‘slave free’, suggesting that such commitments are voluntary. The defendants should have known about the problem of child slavery from visits to farms or reports from domestic and international organisations.

In September 2015 the defendants appealed against the decision, but the US Supreme Court also denied their petition to dismiss the lawsuit. The defendants argued the US law cannot apply to conduct taking place in foreign countries. The plaintiffs have now been given an opportunity to amend their complaint to argue US law can apply to conduct occurring overseas.

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