Dec. 1 (UPI) -- Nestle USA and Cargill argued in Supreme Court Tuesday against allowing a child slavery case against them alleging human rights violations to proceed.
Two U.S. chocolate companies had petitioned to toss out a lower court ruling allowing a 2005 lawsuit filed by men who allegedly were trafficked out of Mali as children and forced to work on Ivory Coast cocoa farms to proceed.
At issue was the Alien Tort Statute, which allows U.S. federal courts original jurisdiction over any civil action brought by foreign national seeking damages for violation of international human rights law.
"This case is about a 15-year-old lawsuit brought against the wrong defendant, in the wrong place, and under the wrong statute," according to a brief Neal Katyal and other attorneys filed earlier this month on behalf of Nestle USA.
Katyal argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday that the ATS doesn't apply to the lawsuit because the alleged damage "occurred halfway across the globe."
Chief Justice John Roberts responded skeptically.
"Mr. Katyal, in this case, no foreign country has objected to the United States hauling its own citizens into its courts," Roberts said. "And why should we be cautious in terms of international relations in such a case? And what objection would foreign countries have to ensuring that U.S. corporations follow customary international law?"
Attorney Paul Hoffman, argued on behalf of the respondents to the petition.
"Plaintiffs are former child slaves seeking compensation from two U.S. corporations, which maintain a system of child slavery and forced labor in their Ivory Coast supply chain as a matter of corporate policy to gain competitive advantage in the U.S. market," Hoffman said. "International norms prohibiting child slavery and forced labor are indisputably specific, universal, and obligatory. The norms apply directly to private parties, including corporations."
Hoffman accused the companies of aiding and abetting the human rights violations. Hoffman added that small and mid-sized chocolate companies such as Tony's Chocolonely do business without facilitating child slave labor in the Ivory Coast.
Charity Ryerson, an attorney for Corporate Accountability Lab, who traveled to Africa to probe cocoa practices, noted that Tony's Chocolonely pays higher prices and takes extra caution to make sure its cocoa suppliers do not rely on child labor, and the extra costs make it hard for them to compete.
Katyal argued that a universal norm on aiding and abetting did not exist.
"Could you set aside for me why you think international law -- there's not an international law against aiding and abetting something as hideous as child slavery?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked petitioners.
Deputy Solicitor General Curtis Gannon, supporting petitioners, cited Central Bank of Denver, a lower court case recognizing primary civil liability did not extend to aiding and abetting.