"Today's decision doesn't weaken the human rights of people around the world; it makes it clear that the Alien Tort Statute does not provide a means for claims to be brought in the U.S. which have nothing to do with the U.S."
But a range of human rights groups said they were "deeply disappointed."
"Today's decision moves one step closer to shutting the court room doors to victims of war crimes and torture," said the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. However, the organization said, "This ruling is not a grant of immunity from liability."
The high court in 2004 endorsed the use of the statute in question, but only in limited circumstances. Wednesday's decision reinforced that approach.
But the four more liberal justices, while agreeing with the court's conclusion, differed on the reasoning behind it.
Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the Alien Tort Statute should continue to have some strong enforcement application.
"International norms have long included a duty not to permit a nation to become a safe harbor for pirates (or their equivalent)," he said, citing past Supreme Court cases. "This approach would avoid placing the statute's jurisdictional scope at odds with its substantive objectives, holding out 'the word of promise' of compensation for victims of the torturer."
The civil lawsuits in the international law context have been compared to a separate, high-profile domestic political dispute. The high court in 2010 concluded that corporations -- businesses, unions and issue advocacy groups -- enjoy the same free speech rights as individuals when it comes to independent election spending. Now the issue in part was whether corporations and political entities should be treated the same as individual offenders when it comes to enforcing international human rights.
The current case is Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (10-1491).