Creative Legal Strategies

“Law and justice are distant cousins.” – Andre Brink

The law is by its nature a conservative enterprise. Court decisions are typically based on a case’s congruence with judicial precedent, statutory law or constitutional provisions, and often reinforce pre-existing power and privilege. Social justice work, by contrast, is often about challenging power propagated through unjust laws or appealing to higher, aspirational norms. Being dedicated, as CCR’s mission statement says, to “the creative use of law as a positive force for social change” means mining the fine veins of constitutional principles that are justice-enabling, uncovering underutilized rules and rulings, surfacing stories of real individuals and communities impacted by injustice, using litigation strategically to move actors outside the courtroom, understanding the interplay between U.S. law and international law, and fostering solidarity with impacted communities, including those across borders. At CCR we do all these things, and more, in our relentless pursuit of justice. Along the way, we have developed a distinctive set of tools and strategies. These include the following.

Alien Tort Statute (ATS)

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), sometimes referred to as the Alien Tort Claims Act, is a federal statute passed by the first Congress in 1789, which allows foreign victims of serious international human rights violations to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts. The law, originally designed to deal with then-grave international law violations such as piracy in international waters, was little-known and even less employed until CCR pioneered its use in a landmark 1979 case to hold a Paraguayan official accountable inside the U.S. for the torture and murder of the 17-year-old son of a Paraguayan dissident. Filártiga v. Peña-Irala ushered in a new era in human rights law, spawning a legal movement for transnational justice and accountability.

CCR continued to use the ATS on behalf of victims of torture and other human rights abuses by government officials where there was no possibility of justice in their own country throughout the 1980s, but then began to expand the possibilities of its reach. In 1993, we brought and ultimately won a case against Radovan Karadžic, a non-state actor, for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We also expanded the ATS use to hold corporate actors accountable through ATS litigation, including Royal Dutch Petroleum for human rights abuses against the Ogoni people in Nigeria, Caterpillar for war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and CACI International for its role in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the second Iraq War.

In 2013, the Supreme Court partially limited the reach of the ATS, but CCR and others in the ATS bar continue to bring cases using this unique legal tool.

International Law

CCR’s use of the ATS as a tool to pursue human rights violations beyond our borders is emblematic of our global perspective and our expertise in international law. In recent decades, as the U.S. Supreme Court has constrained the protections of U.S. constitutional and civil rights law, CCR has sought to interject more expansive international human rights norms into the domestic legal conversation. We frequently bring a unique human rights analysis to issues such as police violence and discrimination or solitary confinement. The Center regularly advocates on behalf of our clients and causes with an array of U.N. bodies, from the Committee Against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Committee. We are similarly strategically engaged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Our international advocacy focuses most often on human rights law, but also on humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict, and international criminal law. In 2011, we filed a groundbreaking case against the Vatican with the International Criminal Court seeking accountability for the widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy and the high-level cover-up and enabling of the abuse.

Universal jurisdiction


The principle of universal jurisdiction allows the national authorities of any state to investigate and prosecute people for serious international crimes even if they were committed in another country. It is based on the notion that some crimes – such as genocide, war crimes, and torture – are of such exceptional gravity – so universal – that they affect the fundamental interests of the international community as a whole. Uniquely among U.S. rights organizations concerned about our government’s post-9/11 torture program, CCR has actively pursued a half dozen cases in multiple countries seeking to investigate and prosecute those Bush Administration officials who authorized, designed and implemented the U.S. torture program in absence of the political will to do so at home.

Freedom of Information Act

“Democracies die behind closed doors,” explained Judge Damon Keith in an important post-9/11 open government case. Yet the U.S. government has gone to unprecedented lengths to classify and bury information about official conduct – and wrongdoing. For this reason, CCR has escalated its use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to shed light on the actions of both government and private actors. It has been an essential tool in defending activists facing government repression; in determining whether there is wrongdoing that warrants a lawsuit; and especially in the post-9/11 era, in uncovering gross human rights violations such as the “ghost detention” of men at CIA black sites. But CCR’s unique use of FOIA requests and FOIA litigation has been as a tool to directly support, publicize, and advance justice struggles in strategic partnership with movement organizations. In our landmark case seeking information about the federal Secure Communities program, for instance, the goal was to uncover information that the National Day Laborers Organizing Network could use in its successful campaign to stop the expansion and lobby for the termination of the controversial deportation and fingerprinting program. Our FOIA work is a prime example of CCR’s foundational commitment to crafting litigation in coordination with grassroots allies with the explicit aim of furthering the human rights and social justice struggles to which we are so passionately dedicated.

Last modified 

July 14, 2015