ATCA stands for the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that allows citizens of other countries to sue in US courts for human rights violations that take place overseas.
Some of the first ATCA human rights claims were brought against foreign government officials including Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines, and Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian-Serb Republic. More recently, victims have used ATCA to file suit against corporations that have been involved in egregious abuses of human rights.
ATCA is a slingshot for the Davids of the world -- a crucial instrument for holding US companies accountable to the most basic standards of human dignity under international law. Without it, people whose rights have been violated would have little access to justice. Lawsuits filed under ATCA also serve as a deterrent. The threat of liability may be the only way to make corporations take human rights concerns into account when doing business overseas. Below are the stories of four individuals who've sought justice through the use of ATCA.
Victim: Jane Doe I
Type of Government: Military Regime
In December 1994, Jane Doe I, a young Burmese mother whose identity must remain secret for her own safety, was cooking by a fire in her village while holding her 2-month old baby. Burmese soldiers came to her house looking for her husband, who had fled forced labor orders given by the military to work on a gas pipeline project. The soldiers were also angry that Jane Doe I had not moved to the prescribed area after the forced relocation of her village for the pipeline project.
In retaliation, the soldiers kicked Jane Doe I so hard that she fell into the fire with her baby in her arms. She was knocked unconscious, and her baby was badly burned. Jane Doe I then tried for days to get medical attention for her baby, but the baby later died from her wounds.
Jane Doe I is now a refugee from the Burmese regime, and one of 15 plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit against Unocal, the California-based oil company whose project allegedly brought the brutal Burmese military to Jane Doe I's village. She and the other plaintiffs were able to bring claims against Unocal using ATCA, and in 2005 Unocal agreed to settle the claims in Doe v. Unocal and compensate the villagers who sued the firm for complicity in forced labor, rape, and murder.
Victim: Ken Saro-Wiwa
Type of Government: Republic transitioning from military to civilian rule
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a well known Nigerian author, television producer, environmentalist and founder of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), an organization created to defend the environmental and human rights of the Ogoni people who live in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
In the early 1990s Saro-Wiwa organized non-violent protests of hundreds of thousands of people adversely impacted by oil development conducted by Shell in Ogoniland. In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa was abducted from his home and jailed along with other MOSOP leaders in a frame-up connected to the murder of four Ogoni leaders. The following year a secret military tribunal tried and convicted Saro-Wiwa of murder. Governments and NGOs worldwide condemned the trial as fraudulent, and urged the Nigerian dictator to spare Saro-Wiwa's life. They also called upon Shell to intervene.
On November 10, 1995 Saro-Wiwa and his eight co-defendants were executed. The only crime he had committed, however, was to defend his people against environmental destruction and human rights abuses. Using ATCA, Saro-Wiwa's family now seeks to hold Shell accountable for complicity in his execution.
Victim: Fatuma Nyawang Garbang
Type of Government: Authoritarian Regime
Corporation: Talisman Energy
In 1994, following a bombing as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign in the southern Sudanese village of Ler, Fatuma Nyawang Garbang and her family fled their village. Later, Garbang and her family returned to their village attempting to reestablish their lives, but the regime's continued tactics to uproot civilians in order to facilitate oil activities made their resettlement impossible. The regime's brutal tactics have included slavery, famine (by blocking international humanitarian aid), rape, aerial bombardments, and murder.
The illegal Sudanese regime that took control of the country by military coup in 1989 has benefited from companies such as Talisman Energy, a Canadian independent oil and gas producer. Talisman purchased a stake in the Sudanese pipeline that runs 994 miles (1,600 kilometers) from south-central to northern Sudan. The pipeline has allowed Sudan to export large amounts of oil, resulting in nearly $18 billion a year in oil revenues. These revenues have allowed the regime to increase military expenditure. The regime has also taken advantage of Talisman's infrastructure. Corroborated evidence shows that Talisman's airstrips were used by the Sudanese regime for offensive military purposes, such as the bombing that forced Garbang and her family to relocate.
In 2001, Garbang, joined by other current and former residents of Sudan, turned to ATCA in their fight for justice after the Canadian government declined to intervene. The plaintiffs filed a class-action suit in US federal court against Talisman alleging that the company was complicit in human rights abuses committed by the government of Sudan in oil-producing areas where Talisman operated. The court denied the company's motion to dismiss the case on March 19, 2003.
Victim: Dolly Filartiga
Type of Governement: Constitutional Republic
First Human Rights ATCA Case
On March 29, 1976, Joelito Filartiga, Dolly Filartiga's seventeen-year-old brother, was kidnapped and tortured to death by the Inspector General of Police of Asuncion, Paraguay, Americo Norberto Pena-Irala. The inspector took the seventeen-year-old's life in reprisal for the political activities of the boy's father, Dr. Joel Filartiga, a noted Paraguayan dissident.
After her brother's death, Dolly Filartiga fled to the U.S. where she was granted political asylum. In 1978, Ms. Filartiga learned that Pena-Irala was residing in the U.S. on an expired tourist visa and she immediately contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In addition, she filed a civil suit on behalf of herself and her father in a New York federal court,seeking compensation for the murder and torture of Joelito Filartiga. The case was initially dismissed by the district court on jurisdictional grounds. However, the case was immediately appealed and finally heard by the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The court ruled that torture represented a violation of universally accepted human rights under the 'law of nations' and therefore was a violation of U.S. domestic law. This ruling allowed the Filartigas to sue under ATCA. The lawsuit broke new ground because it was the first time ATCA was used to sue for human rights violations. The plaintiffs were awarded a $10.4 million judgment. The money was never paid out, but Dolly Filartiga still considered the award a victory for justice.