Alien Tort Statute

The Alien Tort Statute (UnitedStatesCode|28|1350; ATS, also called the Alien Tort Claims Act and Alien Torts Claim Act) is a federal law of the United States that states: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

Recently, this statute has become significant as a means of allowing American government, military, and corporate leaders to be held responsible in a court of law for the human rights abuses committed as a result of their presence in a foreign country. This is regardless of whether the abuses were committed by someone within an American organization, or whether the abuses were committed by a local group empowered by the presence of the American organization.


ATS was part of the Judiciary Act of 1789. [Ch. 20, § 9, 1 Stat. 73 (1789).] Proponents of limiting the scope of the act, such as Bush administration Attorney General John Ashcroft,Fact|date=December 2007 claim that it was originally intended to only apply to a very limited number of torts, such as those which occurred during acts of piracy, violations of safe-conducts, or interference with the rights of ambassadors. [cite journal|title= Taking Multinationals to Court | date = Spring 2004| publisher= World Policy Journal | pages= 61] Fact|date=December 2007 The act was very rarely used and its limits were not tested until 1980, when plaintiffs invoked ATS in "Filartiga v. Pena-Irala", 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980).Fact|date=December 2007 Filartiga v. Pena-Irala involved a suit by relatives of a Paraguayan who was kidnapped and tortured to death by the defendant, a Paraguayan police official.Fact|date=December 2007 Since then, about 100 suits have been filed under ATS.Fact|date=December 2007 Most frequently, it is used by plaintiffs as a basis for jurisdiction for claims involving torts arguably in violation of modern international law.Fact|date=December 2007 The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1992 specifically addressed cases such as Filartiga v. Pena-Irala and may be considered to replace ATS to that extent.Or|date=December 2007

Legal Issues

The statute provides a proper legal venue to victims who could not otherwise bring their oppressors to justice by allowing U.S. courts to decide human rights cases even when neither party has any connection to the United States. The accused must be in the U.S. to be served court papers. If the defendant in a claim brought under the Alien Tort Statute is a foreign sovereign state (or some agency or subdivision thereof), the jurisdictional requirements of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act still must be satisfied before a court can hear the claim. One area which has recently excited controversy is the use of the statute to sue American and other international corporations for damages which result from their actions in other countries. The opposing position of the National Association of Manufacturers has been adopted by the administration of George W. Bush, but has not resulted in a United States Supreme Court decision which precludes such legal actions. The most recent Supreme Court decision construing the statute is Sosa v. Álvarez-Machaín [] .

Doe v. Unocal

In September 1997, 13 Burmese villagers filed suit against Unocal and their parent company, the Union Oil Company of California under the ATCA [Doe I v. Unocal Corp.395 F.3d 932 C.A.9 (Cal.),2002] for alleged human rights violations, including forced labour, in the construction of the Yadana gas pipeline project in Myanmar, formerly Burma.cite web |url= |title=Plaintiff's Complaint for Damages |author=Kenderton Lynch |date=2000-09-29 |accessdate=2007-12-28] In December 2004, Unocal agreed to settle after a motion for summary judgement failed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California.Fact|date=December 2007 Myanmar's military dictatorship has come under intense international scrutiny for its use of forced civilian labour to drive its military projects.Fact|date=December 2007

Wang Xiaoning versus Yahoo!

Human rights organizations have taken up the cause of Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning, basing their case on this 217-year-old U.S. law to punish corporations for human rights violations abroad, an effort the Bush administration has opposed.

:The suit says that in 2001, Wang was using a Yahoo e-mail account to post anonymous writings to an Internet mailing list. The suit alleges that Yahoo, under pressure from the Chinese government, blocked that account. Wang set up a new account via Yahoo and began sending material again; the suit alleges that Yahoo gave the government information that allowed it to identify and arrest Wang in September 2002. The suit says prosecutors in the Chinese courts cited Yahoo's cooperation. [cite news|title= Advocates Sue Yahoo In Chinese Torture Case | date = 2007-04-20| publisher= The Washington Post | url =]

The mother of Shi Tao (Guao Quingsheng) has also joined the lawsuit on behalf of her son. [cite news|title= Yahoo sued by China Reporter | date = 2007-06-11| publisher= Al Jazeera | url =] Shi Tao was convicted of providing state secrets to foreign agencies when he passed the details of a memo (in which representatives of PRC warned journalists of instabilities that might arise from marking the Tiananmen Square anniversary) to a New York-based pro-democracy forum. [cite news|title= Shi Tao | date = 2007-06-11| publisher= HRIC | url =]

Yahoo! settled the case in November 2007 for an undisclosed amount of money, although they did agree to cover the plaintiff's legal costs as a part of the agreement. In a statement released after the settlement was made public, Yahoo! said that it would "provide 'financial, humanitarian and legal support to these families' and create a separate 'humanitarian relief fund' for other dissidents and their families." [cite news|title= Yahoo settles Chinese Dissident Lawsuit | date = 2007-11-14| publisher= PC World | url =,139619-c,yahoo/article.html]


External links

* [ Harvard Law - Alien Tort Claims Act]

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