I have reported earlier on the issues which yesterday led to the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court 2020 SCC 5 Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Araya, in which the Supreme Court was asked whether there should be a new tort of breach of international law, and whether the “act of state” doctrine prevents adjudication in the case at issue. The case does not have jurisdictional issues to consider so I shall leave the substantive public international law analysis (not my core area) to others: Dr Ekaterina Aristova’s Twitter feed referenced below should give readers plenty of pointers, as does (which came out just as I was finalising this post) Stephen Pitel’s analysis here.
The case does raise the kinds of questions upon which the US Supreme Court (Kiobel; Jesner) refused to be drawn, particularly issues of corporate culpability under public international law. Again, this is not my area of core expertise and my thoughts here are merely that.
Three Eritrean workers claim that they were indefinitely conscripted through Eritrea’s military service into a forced labour regime where they were required to work at a mine in Eritrea. They claim they were subjected to violent, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The mine is owned by a Canadian company, Nevsun Resources Ltd. The Eritrean workers started proceedings in British Columbia against Nevsun and sought damages for breaches of customary international law prohibitions against forced labour, slavery, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and crimes against humanity. They also sought damages for breaches of domestic torts including conversion, battery, unlawful confinement, conspiracy and negligence.
Nevsun brought a motion to strike the pleadings on the basis of the ‘act of state’ doctrine, which precludes domestic courts from assessing the sovereign acts of a foreign government. Nevsun also took the position that the claims based on customary international law should be struck because they have no reasonable prospect of success.
The act of state doctrine is “a rule of domestic law which holds the national court incompetent to adjudicate upon the lawfulness of the sovereign acts of a foreign state” (R. v. Bow Street Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, Ex parte Pinochet Ugarte (No. 3),  1 A.C. 147 (H.L.), at p. 269) (Lord Millett). The doctrine exists in Australian and English common law (with plenty of discussion) but is not part of Canadian common law. At 30 Abella J for the majority explains the connections and differences with the doctrine of state immunity. [The doctrine was also at stake in  EWHC 822 (Comm) Reliance v India on which I reported earlier].
The motion was dismissed by the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court in majority has now agreed, arguing (ia at 44-45)
The act of state doctrine and its underlying principles as developed in Canadian jurisprudence are not a bar to the Eritrean workers’ claims. The act of state doctrine has played no role in Canadian law and is not part of Canadian common law. Whereas English jurisprudence has reaffirmed and reconstructed the act of state doctrine, Canadian law has developed its own approach to addressing the twin principles underlying the doctrine: conflict of laws and judicial restraint. Both principles have developed separately in Canadian jurisprudence rather than as elements of an all‑encompassing act of state doctrine. As such, in Canada, the principles underlying the act of state doctrine have been completely subsumed within this jurisprudence. Canadian courts determine questions dealing with the enforcement of foreign laws according to ordinary private international law principles which generally call for deference, but allow for judicial discretion to decline to enforce foreign laws where such laws are contrary to public policy, including respect for public international law.
Nor has Nevsun satisfied the test for striking the pleadings dealing with customary international law. Namely it has not established that it is “plain and obvious” that the customary international law claims have no reasonable likelihood of success.
Of note is at 50 the insistence with reference to authority that ‘deference accorded by comity to foreign legal systems “ends where clear violations of international law and fundamental human rights begin” ‘, and the majority’s opinion’s references to the stale nature of the established concept that public international law exists for and between States only.
Clearly the case is not home and dry for the lower courts will now have to address the substantive issues and may still hold for Nevsun. Moreover claimant’s case is based on parts of international law traditionally considered ius cogens – of less use in other corporate social responsibility cases involving environmental issues or more ‘modern’ social rights other than the hard core ius cogens category. Hence in my initial view the precedent value of the case may not be as wide as one might hope. However the clear rejection of the act of state attempt is significant.
Of interest finally is also the judgment at 75 and at 109 citing Philippe Sands’ (KU Leuven doctor honoris causa) formidable East West Street in support.
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Heading 8.3.