WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday said U.S. chocolate companies cannot be sued for child slavery on the African farms from which they buy most of their cocoa.

But the court stopped short of saying such a lawsuit could never go forward.

The court’s splintered decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. dissented from the decision, saying it was premature to dismiss the suit.

Six African men were seeking damages from Nestlé USA and Cargill, alleging that as children they were trafficked out of Mali, forced to work long hours on Ivorian cocoa farms and kept at night in locked shacks.

Their attorneys argue the companies should have better monitored their cocoa suppliers in West Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown and child labor is widespread.

At issue was whether the Malians have the right to sue the companies in U.S. courts and, more broadly, under what circumstances foreigners may sue U.S. firms for wrongs committed in their supply chains overseas.

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The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal district courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

The law was largely dormant until the 1980s, when attorneys began to use it to pursue international human rights cases. The Supreme Court in 2004 said some claims might be allowed under the law, but since then has narrowed the scope rather than expanding it.

The court had previously rejected such lawsuits when the alleged misconduct occurred almost entirely abroad, and in the Malians’ case, the location of the alleged wrongs emerged as a critical point of dispute.

In the view of the companies, such cases ought to be filed not against the corporations but against the traffickers and farmers involved in Africa.

“Nestlé never engaged in the egregious child labor alleged in this suit,” the company said in a statement. “[W]e remain unwavering in our dedication to combating child labor in the cocoa industry.”

Attorneys for the Malians, meanwhile, argued that the mistreatment of the Malians stems from decisions by company officials in the United States – and therefore, U.S. courts should handle the matter. While Nestlé and other chocolate companies do not generally own the farms from which they obtain cocoa, the firms often provide training and other support to them.

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“We believe they controlled the system of child forced labor in the Ivory Coast from the United States,” said Paul Hoffman, an attorney for the Malians.

In its decision Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with the companies on that critical issue.

“Nearly all the conduct that they say aided and abetted forced labor – providing training, fertilizer, tools, and cash to overseas farms – occurred in Ivory Coast,” Thomas wrote in the majority opinion.

The proliferation of global supply chains in recent decades has led to recurring debates over the responsibility of multinational companies to monitor the adherence of their far-flung suppliers to standards on human rights and the environment.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, have pushed back against lawsuits such as the one against Nestlé and Cargill, arguing they are burdensome and could discourage investment in developing economies.

U.S. and foreign companies have been sued 150 times over the past 25 years under the Alien Tort Statute, the business groups said.

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There is evidence that the world’s chocolate supply depends heavily on child labor, and that despite two decades of industry promises to eradicate the practice, it remains widespread. While much of it occurs on family farms, some is also arranged by traffickers who transport children from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

A Washington Post investigation of the use of child labor in the cocoa industry found representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands could not guarantee that any of their chocolate was produced without child labor. It featured children from Burkina Faso working in appalling conditions on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.

More recently, a report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor indicated that the West African cocoa industry was exploiting the work of 1.6 million West African child laborers. Most of those laborers were involved in tasks considered hazardous, such as wielding machetes, carrying heavy loads or working with pesticides, according to the report.

The combined cases are Nestlé USA Inc. v. Doe I and Cargill, Inc. v. Doe I.