Fighting for human rights on a global front

Katie Redford is cofounder of EarthRights International, which litigates human rights cases against corporations around the world.
Earthrights International
Katie Redford is cofounder of EarthRights International, which litigates human rights cases against corporations around the world.

Twenty years ago, when Katie Redford was in law school, she wrote a paper suggesting the use of an ancient federal statute to fight contemporary human rights abuses by an American corporation doing business in Burma. Her interest in the subject resulted in her work on John Doe v. Unocal Corp, the first time the US courts agreed to consider a lawsuit against an American company accused of human rights abuses abroad. Unocal, a California oil company, was part owner of a pipeline project in Burma, where the military regime guarding the site allegedly raped, tortured, and killed villagers. In 2005, Unocal agreed to settle the case. Redford, who is from Wellesley, filed a brief in support of a similar case argued last week before the US Supreme Court. Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) is the first case the Supreme Court is hearing this session.

Q. What are the allegations of this case?

A. Shell conspired with the Nigerian Army that they contracted with, when Shell was extracting oil and building a pipeline there. The lead plaintiff is the wife of the late Dr. Barinem Kiobel, who along with eight others, was arrested, tortured, and hanged in 1995 in retaliation for organizing resistance to Shell.


Q. What do you think of the chances of the plaintiffs prevailing in Kiobel v. Shell?

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

A. On the one hand, I’m optimistic because this case is very clear in international law. Justice [Anthony] Kennedy is often the swing vote, and he’s also the justice who best understands international law. But I’m concerned because this court has bent over backward to accommodate corporations.

Q. Talk about the obscure provision that President George Washington signed into law in 1789. How did you use that in your argument?

A. In the nation’s first Judiciary Act, it says that the federal courts have jurisdiction over illegal actions committed by Americans outside the United States. The founding fathers were expressing their commitment as a member of the community of nations to open their courts for certain international crimes. At the time, it was probably intended to deal with piracy.

Q. In law school, you founded EarthRights International, a human rights nonprofit. What led you to focus on Burma as your first project?


A. After graduating from college, I taught English on the Thai-Burma border. I heard stories about forced labor, rape, killings, and torture by the Burmese military regime against the ethnic minorities. Everyone told me if I was interested in human rights abuses, I must find Ka Hsaw Wa, a student activist.

Q. You found him and visited the villages that were the front lines of fighting between the military and opposition. You also contracted malaria, fell in love, and married Ka Hsaw Wa. What does he do now?

A. My husband is cofounder and executive director of EarthRights International. He is the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Reebok Human Rights Award and many others. At EarthRights, we litigate human rights cases against corporations. We are in Washington, with an office in Peru, and we have 40 people in Thailand. We also have three schools on the Thai-Burma border.

Q. What do you think of the so-called new Burma, with the government moving toward democracy?

A. I don’t totally trust it. I know there are legitimate reformers but I also know the army is still there, very much behind the scenes. It’s going to be a long road.


Q. Isn’t one of your law school professors a leading voice for corporations in these human rights abuse cases?

A. My professor Jack Goldsmith has been writing about the illegality of human rights law, the unconstitutionality, the judicial activism. He has written legal briefs in support of corporations opposed to these lawsuits. He happened to clerk for Justice Kennedy, who will likely be the deciding vote in Kiobel v. Shell. The plot thickens. . .

Interview was edited and condensed.
Bella English can be reached at