Are corporations subject to international law? A corporation seems to be subject to international law just as much as an individual is, at least according to a decision made by the U.S. against Talisman Energy.

In 2001 the Presbyterian Church of Sudan filed a lawsuit against the Canadian oil and gas producer, Talisman Energy, under the US Alien Tort Claims Act, which provides US courts with original jurisdiction over certain tort claims filed by aliens. In the suit, it was claimed that Talisman aided the Government of Sudan in the commission of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to the claim, Talisman worked alongside the Sudanese Government in the creation of buffer zones around certain oil fields, which effectively assisted human rights violations and the perpetration of international crimes in order to gain access to oil by displacing the population living in the areas around the oil fields and attacking their villages.

The District Court of New York dismissed the claim on 12 September 2006. On 3 October 2009, the decision was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Court of Appeals held that, due to previous case law, it had to look at international law to decide what standard was applicable to establishing aiding and abetting liability for human rights violations. Turning to international law, the Court held that purposefully intending the violations, rather than knowledge of the violations alone, was the applicable standard. So, in order to determine liability under the Alien Tort Claims Act the plaintiffs must show that “Talisman acted with the “purpose” to advance the Government’s human rights abuses.” The Court held that the claimants had failed to establish that Talisman “acted with the purpose to support the Government’s offences”.


However, I am wondering if it applies to all companies and under any situation. I couldn't really find anything about this.

2 Answers 2


"International Law" refers to laws regarding relations between nations: also known as "the law of nations". Hence a legal dispute between the US and Saudi Arabia would be decided by principles of international law and if adjudicated would be handled by e.g. the International Criminal Court. A business, on the other hand, would be subject to national law, and possibly national law of more than one nation.

The case you cite is somewhat exceptional since a case under US law has to be decided by reference to the "international law definition" of aiding and abetting liability for human rights violations. This is because of 28 USC 1350:

The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

The allegation in the lawsuit was that this was a violation of "the law of nations". So, if a person or business with a connection to the US violates "the law of nations", they might be sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

  • 1
    I think you mean the International Court of Justice, not the International Criminal Court. The ICC hears cases against individuals accused of crimes against international law: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. The ICJ handles disputes between two states.
    – cpast
    Sep 5, 2021 at 22:10

I would not say this was a case of Talisman Energy being "subject to international law". Rather, Talisman was subject to US law, because the Alien Tort Claims Act grants US courts jurisdiction over certain claims originally arising outside the US. Many countries apply their laws outside their borders in certain circumstances. They cannot always enforce this, but in some cases they can.

Here the US courts held that non-US law must be consulted as to the standard of liability to be applied. The district court did so, and found that by that standard, Talisman was not liable, and so dismissed the claim. I would call that a decision for Talisman, not against it.

Companies (and individuals) engaging in international activities must always be aware that the laws of many countries may apply to their actions. This is a general truth, although the details vary widely with different circumstances.

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