International Human Rights Litigation in U.S. Courts, Second Edition

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This in an excerpt from the Introduction of International Human Rights Litigation in U.S. Courts, Second Edition by Beth Stephens, Judith Chomsky, Jennifer Green, Paul Hoffman and Michael Ratner.

Despite 50 years of rapid progress in the recognition of international human rights norms, enforcement of these norms and punishment of transgressors remains ineffective. The world community has proved incapable of preventing or stopping widespread violence on almost every continent. The vast majority of perpetrators have not been brought to justice, and their victims have not been compensated for their suffering. Although not a substitute for other means of enforcing human rights norms, human rights litigation is an important tool in the struggle to protect human rights. The cases have had a significant impact on the individual plaintiffs and on the human rights movements in their home countries, in the United States, and internationally.

Victims of gross human rights violations have won multimillion dollar judgments. Although the judgments are difficult to enforce against individuals, collection is not impossible. Human rights plaintiffs seized over $1 million from a Haitian general—money that he won in the Florida state lottery. The plaintiffs in a case against two Salvadoran generals collected hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some judgments may eventually be enforceable in the defendant’s home country, due to a changing political climate. The Filartigas, the plaintiffs in the landmark ATS case, have sought to enforce the U.S. judgment in Paraguay, while the plaintiffs in other cases continue to search for assets to collect their judgments.

Just as important, plaintiffs in these cases are often concerned about more than money. They take tremendous personal satisfaction from filing a lawsuit, forcing the defendant to answer in court or to leave the United States, and creating an official record of the human rights abuses inflicted on them or their families. As Dolly Filartiga explains in the Foreword to this book, her family’s lawsuit against the man who tortured her brother to death gave them a chance to fight back against the horror he had inflicted on them. Carlos Mauricio, plaintiff in a lawsuit against two Salvadoran generals, summarized the importance of the litigation in his eyes: “[T]he struggle against torture begins with the struggle against impunity.” Mauricio explained, “One of the facts from torture is that they make you not want to talk about it. It took me 15 years to be able to tell my story. . . . [T]elling my story to others is important . . . because in that way you are really out of prison.”

In addition to the financial impact of damage awards, defendants can be punished in other ways. For many, the public record of their abuses has lasting consequences. Guatemalan General Hector Gramajo, for example, saw his political aspirations stymied as a result of the judgment in Xuncax v. Gramajo. Kelbessa Negewo was deported from the United States after the decision in Abebe-Jira v. Negewo. Most of the individual defendants have fled the United States at some point during the litigation, sending a message to other culprits that responsibility for gross human rights abuses cannot be evaded by seeking refuge in this country.

More generally, in the countries where the abuses took place, the lawsuits help create a record of human rights violations and point the finger of responsibility at the culprits. Thus, human rights activists in Guatemala viewed the
Gramajo cases as an important step in the long struggle to hold the military accountable for its human rights atrocities. After a U.S. court held Alvaro Rafael Saravia liable for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Saravia confessed his role and triggered a new search for those responsible for human rights abuses in that country.

Last modified 

July 13, 2009