The Government has made a formal intervention in the US justice process in an attempt to stop British companies being sued in America for alleged human rights violations committed around the world.
The move follows months of lobbying from British businesses, which are concerned that they might have to pay millions of pounds in compensation for the alleged exploitation of Third World countries and their people.
One of the first cases that could directly benefit from the Government's action involves Shell. The oil company is denying allegations that it helped suppress environmental opposition to its oil projects in Nigeria. The execution of one environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, on murder charges, led to Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth.
Shell is also being sued with other UK companies under the same laws by victims of racism for allegedly helping to prop up the former aparthied regime of South Africa.
Sir Philip Watts, the chairman of Shell and the leader of the UK branch of the International Chamber of Commerce, has been at the forefront of a campaign to restrict the use of the 200-year-old US law against British companies. The Nigerian and South African cases have been brought under the 1789 Alien Claims Tort statute, first passed to provide legal redress for the loss of ships captured or destroyed by pirates operating out of the Florida Keys. A Government amicus brief - or legal opinion - filed in the US federal courts argues that the Alien Tort statute has too wide an application and must be neutralised because British companies are facing "large damage claims".
Environmental groups and human rights lawyers accused the Government of hypocrisy yesterday. Simon McRae, of Friends of the Earth, said: "This is the only legislation in the world that holds to account international companies accused of human rights and environmental abuses committed in other countries. It's incredible that the Government now wants to block it. The Government has refused to enact similar legislation in this country so where else can these cases be tried?"
Human rights lawyers said the intervention amounted to double standards because ministers had refused to make a similar case for the British detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. Louise Christian, who represents three of the Guantanamo families, said: "We have repeatedly asked the Government to file an amicus in the Supreme Court in support of the detainees but they keep telling us that it would not be appropriate because negotiations have reached a sensitive stage."
The US case in which the UK has filed its amicus brief involves allegations of human rights abuses in Mexico. In the document, seen by The Independent, the Government, with the governments of Australia and Switzerland, complains that the Alien Tort statute "interferes with the sovereignty of the governments and other sovereign nations by subjecting their nationals and enterprises to risk of conflicting legal commands and proceedings and the costs of defending themselves against private law suits".
The Foreign Office is understood to be concerned about a billion-dollar damages claim against British companies that conducted business in apartheid South Africa. Shell, Barclays, NatWest and the mining group Anglo American were named as co-defendants in a lawsuit brought by victims of the racist regime.