[mgj-discuss] Ashcroft Attacks Human Rights Law
dbeeton at freeburmacoalition.org
Fri May 16 11:35:13 EDT 2003
>>U.S.: Ashcroft Attacks Human Rights Law
>>Justice Dept. Undermining Key Precedent
>>(New York, May 15, 2003) - A new legal brief filed by the
>>U.S. Justice Department would roll back twenty years of
>>judicial rulings for victims of human rights abuse, Human
>>Rights Watch warned today.
>>On May 8, Attorney General John Ashcroft filed an amicus
>>curiae ("friend of the court") brief for the defense in a
>>civil case alleging that the oil company Unocal was
>>complicit in forced labor and other abuses committed by the
>>Burmese military during the construction of the Yadana gas
>>pipeline. The case, John Doe I, et al. v. Unocal
>>Corporation, et al., was originally filed in 1996 and is
>>currently being reheard by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of
>>The Justice Department brief went well beyond the scope of
>>the Unocal case, however, and argued for a radical re-
>>interpretation of the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). For
>>over 20 years, courts have held that the ATCA permits
>>victims of serious violations of international law abroad to
>>seek civil damages in U.S. courts against their alleged
>>abusers who are found in the United States. The Justice
>>Department would deny victims the right to sue under the
>>ATCA for abuses committed abroad.
>>"This is a craven attempt to protect human rights abusers at
>>the expense of victims," said Kenneth Roth, executive
>>director of Human Rights Watch. "The Bush administration is
>>trying to overturn a longstanding judicial precedent that
>>has been very important in the protection of human rights."
>>Courts have upheld human rights suits under the ATCA since
>>1980, in a case brought by the father and sister of Joel
>>Filartiga, a seventeen-year-old Paraguayan. Filartiga was
>>kidnapped and tortured to death by a Paraguayan police
>>official who subsequently emigrated to the United States. In
>>that case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the
>>ATCA permitted victims to pursue claims based on serious
>>violations of international human rights law. Victims have
>>also been awarded damages against other perpetrators,
>>including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadic and former
>>Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. However, because the
>>defendants have traditionally been non-residents without
>>assets in the U.S., it has been difficult to collect the
>>The Justice Department argued that the ATCA could not be
>>used as a basis to file civil cases and that victims should
>>sue under other laws; that the "law of nations" covered by
>>the ATCA did not include international human rights
>>treaties; and that abuses committed outside of the United
>>States would not be covered under the law. No previous
>>administration has challenged the legitimacy of ATCA cases
>>against gross human rights abusers.
>>If the Administration's argument were upheld, some of the
>>cases that would not have gone forward include:
>> * The 1996-97 Holocaust Litigation cases against Swiss
>>banks, which led to a U.S. government-negotiated settlement
>>to pay Holocaust survivors approximately $1.25 billion. The
>>cases were brought under several laws, including the ATCA.
>> * Presbyterian Church of Sudan, et al. v. Talisman
>>Energy Inc., a 2001 suit filed in New York federal district
>>court alleging that Talisman Energy was complicit in human
>>rights abuses committed by the government of Sudan in oil-
>>producing areas where Talisman operated. The court denied
>>the company's motion to dismiss the case on March 19, 2003.
>> * Raymonde Abrams v. Societe Nationale Des Chemins De
>>Fer Francais, a case filed in 2000 in which Holocaust
>>survivors alleged that the National French Railroad Company
>>deported Jews and others to Nazi death camps. A New York
>>district court dismissed the case on November 7, 2001; it is
>>currently on appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal.
>>"The Justice Department brief could do a lot of damage to
>>this important legal precedent," said Roth. "Supporters of
>>human rights should tell the Bush administration to leave
>>the Alien Tort Claims Act alone."
>>The Alien Tort Claims Act was adopted as part of the
>>original Judiciary Act in 1789 and states that "[t]he
>>district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any
>>civil action by an alien for a tort [personal injury] only,
>>committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of
>>the United States."
>>In 1993, lawsuits were brought against multinational
>>companies for alleged complicity in human rights violations
>>abroad. There have been at least twenty-five such cases
>>against companies over the last ten years; the courts have
>>dismissed most of these cases and have not rendered any
>>judgments against companies.
>>The Doe v. Unocal case was originally filed in 1996. In
>>1997, a U.S. federal district court in California ruled that
>>the company could be held liable for the alleged abuses, but
>>subsequently dismissed the case in 2000. Two years later,
>>the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling and
>>allowed the case to proceed. However in February 2003, the
>>Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case en banc. The
>>Justice Department brief was filed for this rehearing.
>>Human Rights Watch is not a party to any lawsuit filed under
>>the ATCA, nor does it take a position on the merits of any
>>particular case. However, Human Rights Watch believes that
>>victims should have the option to file such suits.
>>Read HRW's background on the ATCA at:
>>Read the U.S. Justice Department's amicus curae brief at:
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