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The Alien Tort Statute

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) allows victims of egregious human rights abuses to sue those responsible in federal courts. Also known as the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), the ATS is a beacon of hope for victims fighting for justice.

The ATS in brief

  • The ATS was passed by the First Congress in 1789
  • Congress wanted to keep lawsuits involving international issues in federal courts, before experienced judges
  • ATS lawsuits may be brought for serious violations of international law such as terrorism, state-sponsored torture and extrajudicial killings, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide
  • The ATS promotes U.S. goals of protecting human rights and denying safe haven to human rights abusers
  • Only abusers found in, or with ties to, the United States may be sued – the ATS does not provide universal jurisdiction over human rights abusers
  • ATS lawsuits typically apply ordinarily rules of civil liability
  • ATS lawsuits generally cannot be brought against foreign states 
  • Without the ATS, similar lawsuits would simply be brought in state courts and could result in confusing and conflicting rules
  • Like any lawsuit, ATS cases that are legally unsound or factually unsupported are dismissed by the courts

Issues Addressed in ATS Cases Include:

  • Terrorist attacks: ATS cases are currently pending against defendants who contributed to the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as in cases where defendants have aided other terrorist acts
  • Torture: Several ATS cases have been brought against people who committed torture in other countries, helping to ensure that the U.S. does not become a safe haven for torturers who have fled their home countries
  • Violence against women: ATS cases have been brought on behalf of victims of state-sponsored rape in Burma and for the rapes of Bosnian women in the Yugoslavia war
  • Genocide: ATS cases have been brought against individuals who participated in genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia
  • Dictators’ crimes against humanity: Ousted dictators and other officials who have sought safe haven in the U.S., such as Ferdinand Marcos, have been sued under the ATS by their victims
  • Killings of environmentalists: Where environmental defenders are killed and tortured by state security forces, ATS cases have been brought to hold those responsible accountable
  • Medical experimentation: Doctors experimenting on human subjects without their consent was one of the horrors of the Holocaust, and ATS cases have challenged modern recurrences of this practice
  • Slavery and forced labor: Slavery has been an international crimes for over a century, and ATS cases have been brought by victims of slavery and other forms of forced labor
  • Egregious child labor and killings of union leaders: ATS cases have challenged the worst forms of child labor and state-sponsored executions of labor leaders

A brief history of the ATS

1789: The Alien Tort Statute was passed by the First Congress and signed into law by George Washington, in order to ensure federal courts could provide redress to non-citizens who had suffered violations of international law. This was particularly important to prove to the world that our new Nation was a law-abiding country.

1980: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided the landmark case Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, allowing an ATS case based on human rights abuses to proceed.

2004: The U.S. Supreme Court decided Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, affirming the principle that human rights abuses are not immune from suit under the ATS .

2013: The U.S. Supreme Court decided Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, holding that ATS claims need to "touch and concern" the United States to a greater extent than the claims in the Kiobel case, in which Nigerian survivors of human rights abuses had sued a British and Dutch corporation for assisting the Nigerian government in committing abuses in Nigeria.

Since 2013, courts have disagreed over the meaning of Kiobel. Some courts have read Kiobel to pose a very high bar to claims for harms that occur abroad; but others, most notably the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, have correctly held that a variety of factors, including the citizenship of the defendant, may mean that ATS claims sufficiently "touch and concern" the U.S. to be heard in U.S. courts.

Our ATS Work

EarthRights International has filed several cases with Alien Tort Statute claims, including Doe v. Unocal, Bowoto v. Chevron, Wiwa v. Shell, and Doe v. Chiquita, and has filed amicus curiae ("friend of the court") briefs in numerous other cases. In addition, in 2005, ERI joined other human rights organizations in a successful campaign to stop Congressional legislation that would have undercut human rights cases filed under the ATS.

 

Photo  © SalFalko, used under Creative Commons BY-NC license.