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Updated 06/22/2006

A Victory for Human Rights? The Supreme Court's Decision on the Alien Tort Claims Act

On June 29, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, a ruling in which both human rights advocates and multinational corporations had a vested interest. At stake was the Alien Tort Claims Act, an important tool in the prosecution of foreign human rights abusers, including corporate entities. Who really won the case, however, depends on which side you ask.   

The Alien Tort Claims Act, which Congress passed as an anti-piracy law in the Judiciary Act of 1789, allows foreign individuals to file civil suits in U.S. federal courts against those who violate “the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” The largely unused ATCA was resurrected nearly 200 years later as a means to prosecute human rights abusers through the case of Filartiga v. Pena-Irala.   

In 1976, 17-year-old Joelito Filartiga was tortured to death in Paraguay by Americo Norberto Pena Irala, then a police inspector general. When Filartiga’s father and sister, who had immigrated to the United States, discovered that Pena was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., they used the ATCA to successfully sue him in federal court. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that state-sponsored torture clearly violates accepted norms of international human rights law and thus falls under the “violation of the law of nations” provision described in the ATCA.    

Since the Filartiga case in 1980, the ATCA has been used about 100 times, albeit without tremendous success. Only 17 cases against individuals have been successfully prosecuted. In 1996, with a lower court ruling in the case of Doe v. Unocal, the ATCA was also deemed a legitimate basis for suing multinational corporations for violations of international law, namely situations in which companies benefited from egregious human rights abuses and allegedly had knowledge of the crimes.   

This application of the ATCA has sharply divided human rights groups and the corporate interest-friendly Bush administration. In its efforts to protect big business from potential lawsuits, the administration has been working to invalidate the ATCA entirely and attempted to use the Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain case as a means to achieve that end.  

Oddly enough, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain involves neither human-rights abuses nor a corporate defendant. In 1985, members of a Mexican drug cartel tortured and murdered a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent. The DEA believed that Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican doctor, was involved in the torture. They hired a group of Mexicans, including Jose Francisco Sosa, to kidnap Alvarez and bring him to the United States. He was arrested and tried in U.S. criminal court, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.   

Once back in Mexico, Alvarez filed several civil claims against the United States, the DEA agents and the Mexican nationals who kidnapped him; all were dismissed except the case against Sosa. Alvarez argued that his kidnapping violated the law of nations and was thus punishable under the ATCA. A Los Angeles jury agreed and awarded him $25,000 in damages. Sosa appealed, and the case ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court.  

Lawyers for Sosa, along with Bush administration officials and corporate representatives, argued before the Supreme Court that the ATCA does not allow any civil action, because it grants jurisdiction to federal courts without specifying what the courts have jurisdiction over. Based on this argument, which contradicts the text of the statute as well as 200 years of precedent, the ATCA thus is only an empty gesture unless Congress passes legislation to further define it.   

The Supreme Court rejected that argument; nevertheless, it ruled in favor of Sosa. “A single illegal detention of less than a day, followed by the transfer of custody to lawful authorities and a prompt arraignment,” the court said, is not a violation of customary international law.    

Although the decision is a technical win for the Bush administration and corporate interests, human rights groups hailed it as a victory because the Supreme Court dismissed the administration’s arguments and affirmed the application of the ATCA for violations of international law that are “specific, universal and obligatory.” Thus the act remains a viable tool for prosecuting human rights abusers. However, the court made no attempt to define what norms of international law might be applied under the act. Its interpretation is still left to be decided on an individual case basis, and it is no less vulnerable to attack than it was before the Sosa decision. 

Legal experts say the battle over the ATCA has just begun, and ATCA cases against corporations will likely be at the forefront. Of the 38 cases brought against corporations, none has gone to trial, but Doe v. Unocal was recently settled in favor of the plaintiffs. This pivotal case was brought on behalf of 14 villagers from Myanmar, the southeast Asian country also known as Burma, who were forced to work on a gas pipeline being built by a subsidiary of the California-based oil company Unocal.  

The plaintiffs accused the company of complicity in forced labor, rape, torture and murder—actions committed by soldiers hired to guard the pipeline. Human rights groups argued that the Myanmar military has a long history of egregious human rights abuses and that Unocal was aware of this history. Since the case was filed in 1996, Unocal has maintained it was unaware of military atrocities, but internal Unocal memos allegedly show that the company was aware of past abuses by the military junta that rules the country.    

On Sept. 15, 2004, a California judge denied Unocal’s motion to dismiss the case. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco was prepared to hear arguments when both parties agreed to a settlement in principle on Dec. 13, 2004. The details of the settlement are still being negotiated and remain confidential, but according to a statement released by the parties involved, Unocal will pay an unspecified amount of money to the plaintiffs as well as funds to improve living conditions, education and health care for people in the pipeline region. The agreement is expected to be finalized by February 2005.  

Other high-profile ATCA cases against corporations include suits against ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Coca-Cola. In June 2004, the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, which also helped represent the plaintiffs in Doe v. Unocal, filed a suit against government contractors CACI International Inc. and Titan Corp. on behalf of Iraqi survivors of torture at Abu Ghraib prison.


For more information

“The Alien Tort Claims Act: How Powerful a Human Rights Weapon Is It? The Supreme Court Gives Some Guidance, But Not Much.” Anthony J. Sebok. FindLaw; July 12, 2004.  

“The Alien Tort Claims Act: What Next After Alvarez-Machain?” Sandra Coliver. Center for Justice & Accountability.  

“Ruling Makes It Harder for Foreigners to Sue in US Courts.” Warren Richey. Christian Science Monitor; June 30, 2004. 

Links to ATCA articles on the Global Policy Forum Web site.   

Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain et al, U.S. Supreme Court; June 29, 2004.  

Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals; June 30, 1980. 

“Unocal to Settle Rights Claims.”  Lisa Girion. Los Angeles Times; Dec. 14, 2004.  

“Unocal Settles Rights Cases in Myanmar.” Associated Press; Dec. 14, 2004. 

Doe v. Unocal background and information from the Center for Constitutional Rights and EarthRights International. 

“Unocal Settles Myanmar Suit.” Carrie Kahn. National Public Radio, Morning Edition; December 14, 2004. 

“CCR Files Lawsuit Against Private Contractors For Torture Conspiracy.” Center for Constitutional Rights. 

“Saleh v. Titan Corp.” Center for Constitutional Rights.