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Failure to Preserve 1789 Law Would Strip Victims of a Powerful Tool Against Human Rights Violations, Legal Groups Say
June 13, 2012, Washington D.C. – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), filed an amicus brief on behalf of human rights organizations in the United States Supreme Court in the case Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (Shell), arguing that U.S. courts are appropriate forums for hearing claims over serious human rights abuses committed abroad. The outcome of Kiobel could lead to a severe narrowing of the 1789 Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows non-U.S. citizens to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international law when perpetrators are present in the U.S. The case was originally argued in February 2012, on the limited question of whether corporations could be sued under the ATS. On its own initiative, the Supreme Court broadened the question to whether and under what circumstances the ATS allows violations of international law committed outside the United States to be heard in U.S. federal courts.
"For decades, the ATS has been an unmatched tool for victims of human rights abuses against both government officials and non-state actors,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Vice President Peter Weiss. “If U.S. courts cannot hear cases about human rights abuses committed abroad, the Court will have granted impunity for complicity in forced labor, torture, extra-judicial killings and other crimes against humanity. Many victims and their families will be left with no recourse or accountability.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights successfully litigated the first modern human rights case under the ATS in 1979, on behalf of the family of a 17-year-old boy tortured to death by a functionary of a ruthless dictatorship. Peter Weiss argued the landmark case, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala.
On the amicus brief with CCR were eight leading human rights organizations: Canadian Centre for International Justice, International Association of Democratic Lawyers, International Commission for Labor Rights, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), RAID, REDRESS and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The organizations argue that, because the ATS allows federal courts to hear international law claims, and international law imposes a duty on national courts to redress serious human rights violations, U.S. courts are an appropriate forum for litigating such claims.
“A U.S. lawsuit concerning human rights abuses abroad will apply universal definitions of torture, crimes against humanity, persecution and other serious violations,” said CCR senior staff attorney Katherine Gallagher. “We are not seeking to criminalize or punish acts in another country under U.S. law, nor to have U.S. courts administer the laws of another country, but only to allow U.S. courts to continue to apply what are internationally accepted as fundamental human rights standards.”
Already, in the 2004 case Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, the Supreme Court held that human rights abuses can be heard under the ATS. The Court’s decision in Kiobel has the potential to close the door to some victims of the worst human rights violations.
Kiobel was filed on behalf of Nigerian activists and their families from the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta who, in the 1990s, opposed Shell’s degradation of their land. In 1994, nine activists were detained, tortured and tried by a special military tribunal, convicted of murder and executed ten days later. Human rights groups and political leaders around the world condemned what they say were spurious charges, and procedures that violated international fair trial standards. The Kiobel plaintiffs allege that Shell bribed witnesses to give false testimony and otherwise cooperated with the special tribunal.
The case will be reargued during the Court’s next term, which begins in October.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.