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What Does Shell Have in Common With General Ratko Mladic?

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What does Royal Dutch Shell have in common with General Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army? More than you'd think...

First off, they've both appeared in the Hague in the past week. Shell was there Tuesday for its Annual General Meeting with shareholders, and Mladic just days earlier for the opening of his trial before the International Criminal Court.

More importantly, Shell and Mladic are both facing court proceedings for allegations of "aiding and abetting" egregious human rights abuses. Shell is accused of complicity in torture and killings of Nigerian environmentalists in the Kiobel vs. Shell case, which the U.S. Supreme Court will re-hear in the fall, and Mladic is accused of 11 counts of crimes against humanity, including the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica.

And finally, they are both what's known as "Non-state actors." Shell, a multinational oil corporation; Mladic, an individual, unaffiliated with any recognized government army or authority.

You won't hear the UK or Dutch government arguing that Mladic should not be prosecuted because he's a non-state actor. Yet that's precisely what these so-called "Shell Governments" have argued already to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Shell, which is an Anglo-Dutch company. In an extraordinary interference in another country's court proceedings, the UK and Dutch governments submitted an amicus brief in the Kiobel vs. Shell lawsuit, arguing that Shell -- because it is a corporation and not a state actor -- is not subject to human rights law.

When UK human rights groups criticized the UK government in a Financial Times piece that ran Tuesday, representatives from the Foreign Office reiterated their position: "We believe that human rights obligations rest with states and not with non-state actors such as corporations. "

Really? It's hard to believe that the UK, Dutch, or any government living in the 21st century can say something like this with a straight face.

Have they not heard of Nuremberg, where corporate executives from IG Farben and other companies were prosecuted for their contributions to Nazi atrocities? We expect all actors -- including corporations -- to refrain from complicity in human rights abuses and to be held accountable if they fail to do so. That's why those companies were stripped of their assets and dissolved at the end of the war, and why Swiss banks are on the hook for the Nazi gold even today. It's precisely why Unocal could be sued in the U.S. for complicity in slavery, torture and crimes against humanity in Burma; and why Chiquita can be sued for financing paramilitary death squads in Colombia.

Non-state actors like these -- and yes, like Shell and Mladic -- have always been subject to fundamental human rights laws. The UK government should stop arguing otherwise.