Transnational Holocaust Litigation and Corporate Accountability for Atrocity

Joanna Kyriakakis is a Senior Lecturer at the Monash University Law Faculty and a Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Much of Joanna’s scholarship has focused upon the applicability of international criminal law to corporations involved in atrocity. 

The legacy of Nuremberg looms large within contemporary debates about corporate accountability for atrocity. Legal historians and human rights lawyers alike are divided as to what that history teaches (if anything) about the norms of international law that apply to corporations, and whether and how justice might be achieved where corporate bureaucracies are vehicles for atrocity.  

In her excellent work, The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law: Unfinished Business, Leora Bilsky challenges those concerned with corporate accountability today to discard our tendency towards narrow legalism in interpreting the history of Nuremberg.  Moreover, she challenges what she sees as our ongoing fixation upon the criminal law as the pre-eminent modality for seeking justice in cases of atrocity.  Both of these predilections, she argues, limit our legal imaginations about ways in which justice can be achieved in cases where corporations are involved in atrocity.  

More particularly, Bilsky sets out to disrupt the prevailing narrative that the transnational holocaust litigations of the 1990s (THL), brought in the United States against corporations that collaborated with the Nazi regime, were largely failures.  Many have criticised THL as a lesser form of justice, on the basis that they resulted in settlements negotiated in the absence of judicial merit determinations and thus failed to advance the legal norms regulating corporate behaviour.  By contrast, Bilsky elegantly and systematically demonstrates how, in the case of THL, ‘a legal settlement was transformed from a barrier to justice into a key mechanism that can enable belated justice to take place’ (at 2).  

She demonstrates this in a variety of ways, but in particular by showing how certain procedural innovations adopted in the litigations resulted in meaningful justice outcomes.  This included their prompting extra judicial processes that were valuable to victims, such as deep historical research.  This historical example thus invites us to place more emphasis in our thinking upon both the procedural and the extra-judicial when exploring possibilities for corporate accountability today. 

As someone whose work has focused upon the potential of international criminal law (including its domestic application) to pursue corporate accountability for atrocity, I was both enlightened by Bilsky’s historical analysis and largely in agreement with the central arguments she develops.  This includes the importance of pursuing creative transnational civil litigation opportunities, the potential of settlements to advance justice goals, the value of bringing a transitional justice framework to the question of corporate atrocity, and the ways in which extra-judicial processes are important when we assess justice outcomes. 

There are, however, some lesser claims in the book of which I am somewhat critical.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my own research focus, they are those claims related to continued attention to the potential of the criminal law.  I summarise briefly below. 

In the first parts of the book, Bilsky casts the value of a close re-examination of THL in terms of the claims that ‘criminal trials are poorly suited to addressing corporate accountability’ and given the distorting effects of ‘the continuing privilege enjoyed by the criminal law over the legal imagination’ (at 15).  The Nuremberg example, it is argued, demonstrates the former.  Yet, normative developments in the criminal law continue to be overvalued relative to civil processes and their potential.  However, I am not sure such claims are really demonstrated in the work, nor are they needed.  

To begin, at various points in the book it is implied that the Nuremberg era criminal jurisprudence is bereft of norms relevant to business involvement in international crimes.  I am not convinced this is true.  There are numerous works on the substantive normative principles of direct and indirect liability adopted at Nuremberg that are relevant to corporate atrocity crime, even if they demonstrate the narrowness of cases that are likely to succeed.[1]

Further, the so-called failure of the legal doctrines used at Nuremberg to tie crimes to corporate activity as evidence of the inability of criminal law to deal with collectives (on the basis that this results in collective punishment which is anathema to liberal criminal law)[2] is not entirely compelling.  This is because corporations were never charged at Nuremberg and so the question of corporate rather than individual criminal liability in corporate contexts was never directly addressed. 

Moreover, it may be true that Nuremberg demonstrates the significant limits of liberal criminal law in linking those motivated by profit to international crimes (with the crime of aggression particularly circumscribed) and that on many measures the industrialist trials were failures.  Both judicial and extra-judicial outcomes in the industrialist cases were influenced by particular ideologies of state/ industry power relations in Nazi Germany and by the politics of the era.[3]  Nonetheless, again neither of these facts leads to the conclusion that international criminal law is categorically ill-suited to corporate atrocity prosecutions nor that efforts towards its reform are ill-founded.  

Undoubtedly, liberal criminal law struggles with crime committed via complex bureaucratic structures, a challenge constituted in particular by the struggle between criminal law’s individualism and the plurality of actors and structures involved in bureaucratic crimes.  However, this is a challenge international criminal law is uniquely directed towards, making it arguably a more filial field to address corporate crime than, at least, its domestic counterparts.  It thus confuses me whenever this quality of corporate crime is described as uniquely distinct to the kinds of crime international criminal law is otherwise concerned with, thus warranting an entirely different approach. 

I am also not sure that criminal law is so greatly preferred in the scholarship on transnational corporate human rights accountability, at least if we look beyond the contemporary debates raging around the US Alien Tort Statute (ATS).[4]  Certainly, international criminal law is given a particular pride of place in international justice efforts related to atrocity, a fact of which we may generally be critical,[5] but its shadow is far smaller in the broader business and human rights dialogues and movements.  Indeed, an alternative critique might be levelled in terms of an over-emphasis in corporate human rights scholarship upon uniquely US procedural mechanisms versus exploring the potential of legal cultures, norms, and procedures in other parts of the world. 

Having said this, the emphasis on the US is understandable when we consider the unique potential that had been offered up by the ATS, which leads to my next observation.  The ATS operates at the intersection of substantive international criminal norms and US procedure.  Thus, even if creatively constituted THL-style litigation processes become an increasing site of scholarship, there remains related value in ongoing work aimed at clarifying the substantive international norms relevant to corporate behaviour.  With the exception of claims based entirely in domestic law, international norms are often needed to ground or at least support domestic redress processes for transnational corporate harms.  The recent existential crisis that faced the ATS at least in part hinged upon questions of normative international criminal law.  This observation is not limited to the ATS, as the potential applicability of victim redress mechanisms in other countries, through which creative justice outcomes might be forged, may likewise be linked to the scope of international criminal norms.  In other words, normative developments in international criminal law may still matter even in the context of exploring creative alternative remedies. 

There also remain, in my view, valid questions as to whether, and to what extent, international criminal law has some (albeit limited) role to play when dealing with accountability for atrocity.  To give but one example: from a victim-centric perspective the resort to garden variety torts or breaches of contract to pursue corporations for international crimes may be inadequate in vindicating victim rights, given the label of the wrong understates the precise harms suffered.[6] 

The point here is simply to say that the discussion around achieving corporate accountability today may be best advanced by exploring the multiplicity of justice modalities that, in different circumstances, may have more or less purchase.  In that respect, Bilsky’s work is an important addition to thinking around what and where the emphasis of some future scholarship might lie. 

One final observation relates to the production of independent documentary histories prompted by legal procedure.  In The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law, Bilsky persuasively demonstrates how the deep documentary histories generated in part by the specific settlement procedures in the THL cases constitute a meaningful component of the justice achieved by those processes.  An interesting area for further study is how these might be replicated in other victim accountability strategies/ procedural innovations in the future.  It strikes me, also, that documentary histories of historical corporate collaborations with human rights abusing regimes have been generated even in cases where the potential of a legal judgment has remained on the table.[7]  The nature and depth of such histories may thus likewise warrant analysis, as pointed to by Bilsky’s work.  

The comments above are not intended to detract from the value of the work, which rests neither upon one’s assessment of the capacity of international criminal law as a vehicle for corporate atrocity accountability nor on an ideological position as to the value of efforts towards its reform.  The insights set out in The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law’s should enrich our efforts into the future.

[1] See e.g. Sabine Michalowski, ‘No Complicity Liability for Funding Gross Human Rights Violations?’ (2012) 30(2) Berkeley Journal of International Law 451; Kyle Rex Jacobson, ‘Doing Business with the Devil: The Challenges of Prosecuting Corporate Officials Whose Business Transactions Facilitate War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity’ (2005) 56 Air Force Law Review 167.

[2] Leora Bilsky, The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law: Unfinished Business (2017), Chapter 1.

[3] See e.g. Doreen Lustig, ‘The Nature of the Nazi State and the Question of International Criminal Responsibility of Corporate Officials at Nuremberg: Revisiting Franz Neumann’s Concept of Behemoth at the Industrialist Trials’ (2011) 43 New York University Journal of Law of International Law and Politics 965; Grietje Baars, ‘Capitalism’s Victor’s Justice? The Hidden Stories behind the Prosecution of Industrialists Post-WWII’, in Kevin Jon Heller and Gerry Simpson (eds), The Hidden Histories of War Crimes Trials (2013) 163.

[4] 28 USC §1350.

[5] See e.g. Mark Drumbl, Atrocity, Punishment and International Law (2007).

[6] This was the argument of certain victims against ATS claims against corporations being precluded and thus victims of corporate atrocity forced to litigate harms as ‘garden variety torts’: ‘Brief of Amici Curiae Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, Cecilia Santos Moran, and Ken Wiwa in Support of Petitioners’, Submission in Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491 (21 December 2011) 17-19.

[7] See e.g. Christopher Kopper, VW do Brasil in the Brazilian Military Dictatorship 1964 – 1985: A Historical Study (1 September 2017). This report was commissioned by Volkswagen following findings in 2014 of the Brazilian Truth Commission and after former employees filed a civil lawsuit against VW in Brazil in 2015.