Privateer Corporations and Agency Liability: A Response to the Cato Institute’s Amicus Brief in Kiobel

The Cato Institute’s amicus brief in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, along with a couple of other amici, repeatedly enact a straw man (straw law?) version of international law as it existed prior to 1789. The ATS, they argue, should be applied in the context of the law of nations of the Enlightment era, which is conceived to have been a limited, formalist creature, with no concern for individuals, dealing only with kings vis-à-vis kings. This idealist version of international law is then contrasted with international law as it exists today, which, in their view, is apparently some kind of bloated, sovereignty-munching leftist obsession with human rights. But while it is the case that international human rights law did not exist prior to the 20th century, Cato’s idealist version of international law ignores the fact that, for many centuries, the law of nations was an omipresent force of domestic legal systems in a manner which today’s domestic courts would scarcely be able to recognize. Domestic enforcement of private claims under international law was far more prevalent in 1789 than it was in 1989.

The Cato amicus’ delicate selections of quotes from Grotius are particularly inept at proving that international law in the 17th century matched Cato’s positivist depictions of it. Cato goes so far as to argue that in Kiobel “the Second Circuit employed an analysis based on the principles enunciated by Grotius,” which is that “under the law of nations corporations are not answerable in tort.” It is exceedingly unclear what precise “principles” Cato is referring to here, because Grotius certainly never made any direct assertions to that end. Grotius fully recognized that sub-sovereign entities were subject to rights and obligations under the law of nations, corporate entities included. In fact, Grotius got his start working as counsel for the Dutch East India Company, defending the company from claims that it had taken Portuguese prizes in violation of international law. His early works in particular were more advocacy pieces than treatises, intended as a defense of the Company’s right to engage in trade in the East Indies, and its powers to wage private war and take prizes.

In On the Law of War and Peace, which Cato quotes from, Grotius repeatedly acknowledges that private entities are capable of violating the law of nations, and can further be personally liable for those violations:
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