Saturday, April 03, 2004

Alien Tort Claims Act

An interesting story a couple of days ago in the Washington Post about a Paraguayan woman who won $10 million in an American court suing the man who tortured her brother to death. The crime occurred in Paraguay, but she was able to sue here in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

The act, enacted in 1789, allows noncitizens to bring civil lawsuits for human rights abuses committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.

The court opinion became the basis for nearly 20 other successful cases in behalf of people from El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and the Philippines and involving torture, summary executions, disappearances, rape and slavery.

She won her suit twenty years ago; the only reason she's in the news today is that the Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of the law under which she won her suit. Again from the Post:

The human rights community is worried that if the Supreme Court rules against the act, victims of gross human rights abuses will no longer be able to bring claims in U.S. courts against perpetrators who come here or have substantial contacts or a base of operations here.

But the Bush administration is concerned that the law could compromise the fight against terrorism and the assistance some allies might offer.

I recently spoke with a friend in the D.C. area who told me about suits that he is bringing against various countries for infringing on human rights. (If memory serves, one of the suits involved child slavery in the chocolate industry.) The whole idea caught me off guard. Foreign parties, including governments, having standing to sue and/or be sued in US courts? I had never known that such a thing was possible.

After a little thought, though, a few examples of this kind of legal action came to min. For instance, various non-Libyan domestic courts played an important role in bringing Moammar Gaddafi to heel. And Spanish courts punished Pinochet for crimes committed when he was dictator. But in both of these examples, the courts were seeking redress for actions committed against fellow citizens. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, neither the offender nor the offended need be American.

So I'm still not sure what I think about this. In the right hands, it seems a powerful tool to do good. But I wonder what such an instrument might do in the wrong hands.


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