Global Policy Forum

Alien Tort Claims Act

Picture Credit:

The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) of 1789 grants jurisdiction to US Federal Courts over "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."

In 1980 a Paraguayan man successfully used ATCA to sue the policeman who had tortured his son to death in Paraguay. Others have since filed civil suits against individuals, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, seeking compensation for damages resulting from breaches of international law. On the rare occasion that a suit is successful, however, the defendant rarely has sufficient assets in the US to satisfy the final judgment.

An interesting development has been the recent efforts to use ATCA to sue transnational corporations for violations of international law in countries outside the US. If these suits are allowed to proceed, then ATCA could become a powerful tool to increase corporate accountability.

UN Documents

Alternative Justice

Because of challenges to plaintiffs suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act, such as the protection of world leaders by sovereign immunity, the actual impact of ATCA suits has been generating publicity and stirring up politics more than anything else. (Crimes of War)


 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004


Chiquita Bananas to Face Columbia Torture Claim (March 30, 2012)

Chiquita, the global banana producer, funded military groups in Colombia that killed and tortured villagers. EarthRights International and Cohen Milstein have now filed a suit against Chiquita on behalf of victims. The case, originally based on the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), will go forward even though ATCA is currently under review in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. US federal judge Kenneth Marra of Florida allowed the lawsuit to proceed following the prosecutor’s claims that Chiquita violated Columbia law. (CorpWatch)

General Motors Concedes to Khulumani in Apartheid Reparations Case (March 1, 2012)

In 2002, the Khulumani Support Group for victims of apartheid sued five corporations for their role in providing infrastructure to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Khulumani brought the case to the US and sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ACTA), which allows non-US citizens to charge grave offenders of human rights in a US federal court. But ATCA has been criticized by large corporations, and its application is currently under review in the Supreme Court. The South African government under President Jacob Zuma approved of the lawsuit, hoping that reparations would help South Africa come to terms with the apartheid’s legacy. (All Africa)

Supreme Court Prepares for Battle Over Human Rights Liability of Corporations (February 27, 2012)

The US Supreme Court’s review of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) decides whether corporations can be held liable for genocide and other violations of international law. Charges were brought under the US Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows non-US citizens to sue perpetrators ofgrave human rights violations abroad. Proponents of ATS include top human rights lawyers, law professors, and political scholars, such as Joseph Stiglitz. They argue that ATS and its success in holding corporations accountable has improved the human rights practices of businesses around the world. (Guardian)

When Big Business and Human Rights Collide (February 27, 2012)

In 1996, US oil giant Unocal (now Chevron) partnered with the Burmese military regime to build a natural gas pipeline along the Thai-Burma border. Burmese soldiers forced thousands of villagers to provide slave-labor for the project. A Burmese mother and victim sued Unocal in a US court under the US Alien Tort Statute of 1789 in Doe v. Unocal. Unocal agreed to a settlement in 2005. But in 2010, a US appellate court ruled to protect corporations from the same statute, declaring corporations immune from international law, which applies only to states and people. Their ruling takes away an important tool used to hold corporations responsible for human rights abuses abroad. The US Supreme Court reviews  the case on Tuesday, February 28. (Huffington Post)

Should Corporations Have More Leeway to Kill Than People Do? (February 24, 2012)

In 2009, the US Supreme Court extended the “personhood” of corporations by allowing them to make unlimited political contributions. A year later, a US federal court extended the rights of corporations beyond personhood in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) by granting corporations immunity from international law. Esther Kiobel, the widow of a victim, sued Shell under the Alien Tort Statute. Kiobel accused Shell of assisting the Nigerian government in executing Ogoni activists who threatened Shell’s operations because of environmental and health effects of Shell’s unregulated drilling practices. The case has been brought up to the Supreme Court, which decides on February 28, 2012 whether or not international law and the Alien Tort Statute may apply to corporations. (NY Times)

“Why the Supreme Court Should Curb the Alien Tort Statute” (February 23, 2012)

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) is a 223-year-old US federal law that allows courts to hear civil lawsuits by non-US citizens for acts that violate international law. In the past, ATS has been used to bring charges against transnational corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Chevron. This article criticizes ATS, arguing that US courts have no place in judging the actions of foreign corporations, and citing that international law only binds nations and people. But the article ignores ATS’ significance as a rare tool to hold corporations accountable for abusing human rights abroad. Multinational corporations exploit lenient international regulations in nations that weak legal infrastructure. Nations and people are not allowed to commit crimes under international law, so why should multinational corporations be allowed this privilege? (Washington Post)


Splintered Circuit OKs Alien Tort Case against Rio Tinto (October 25, 2011)

The question of corporate responsibility for human rights abuses abroad is once more on the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals’ agenda. A decade ago, the mining company Rio Tinto was sued in a federal court on claims of genocide and war crimes for its alleged complicity with the Papua New Guinean government in an incident that killed 10,000 people. The Court of Appeals has now revived the lawsuit and holds that the Alien Tort Claims Act does not shield corporations from liability for war crimes under international law. (The Recorder)

United States Supreme Court Seeks to Judge Human Rights Abuses Abroad (October 18, 2011)

The US Supreme Court has decided to take on two cases to determine whether corporations and political organizations can be sued in US courts for abetting human rights abuses in other countries. In the both cases, lower courts have ruled that only individuals can be held liable under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The outcome of these cases will demonstrate whether corporations can continue to escape liability or if they will be held legally responsible for their actions anywhere in the world. The hearing in these controversial cases is scheduled for February. (International Business Times)

Lawsuit Against Cisco on Rights Abuses in China to Test Legal Reach (September 9, 2011)

In May and June this year, three Chinese dissidents and the Human Rights Law Foundation filed two lawsuits in the US against Cisco Systems Inc., accusing the technology company of aiding and abetting human rights abuses in China. The plaintiffs are suing under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which mainly has been used in cases against oil and mining companies. Daniel Ward, the lawyer representing the dissidents, states that Cisco has provided the Chinese Government with technology that censor the internet and track opponents of the government. The outcome of these cases will demonstrate whether technology companies could be held accountable when foreign governments use their products for repression and in violation of civil rights. (Reuters)

Guatemalans Sue US for Deliberately Spreading Illness in 1940s Experiment (March 15, 2011)

In late 2010 it was revealed that the US government conducted experiments on Guatemalans during the 1940s, intentionally infecting around 700 people with syphilis without their consent. The US government made an official apology, but failed to respond to a request for out-of-court compensation. Victims, and relatives of victims, have now filed an Alien Tort claim in the US seeking damages for health problems caused by the experiments. (Christian Science Monitor)

US Court Upholds Key Shell Ruling in Nigeria Case (February 4, 2011)

Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. looks set to have a considerable impact on the Alien Tort Claims Act.  The plaintiffs' case alleges that Royal Dutch Petroleum violated international customary law by aiding and abetting the Nigerian government in suppressing protests against oil exploration and production activities in Ogoni, Nigeria.  In September 2010, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, finding that corporations cannot be liable for violations of international customary law - a remarkable break with precedent.  The plaintiffs were denied a rehearing by the Second Circuit in February 2011, leaving the original decision intact.  It is now likely the case will go to the Supreme Court to clarify the important question of corporate liability under the Act. (Reuters)


Could BP Be Sued in a US Court by Foreigners Harmed by the Oil Spill? (May 31, 2010)

Experts predict that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will most likely reach the shores of other countries if BP fails to stop the leak. This raises the question whether foreigners harmed by the spill will have a legal basis to file lawsuits against BP in US Courts under the Alien Tort Claims (ATCA). The author of this article, an international litigation attorney based in Miami, provides an answer to this question. (International Business Law Advisor)


Chevron Expects to Fight Ecuador Lawsuit in US (July 21, 2009)

Residents of Ecuador's oil producing Amazonian rainforest seek to hold Chevron legally responsible for damages done by Texaco between 1964 and 1990. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has publicly sided with the plaintiffs, signaling to Chevron that its prospects of winning the case are extremely low. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001 and never actually operated in Ecuador. As such, any ruling by the plaintiffs must be enforced in the US or another country where Chevron holds assets. Curiously, Chevron says it will be difficult to convince a US judge that that it did not receive a fair trial in Ecuador. (Wall Street Journal)

Settlement reached in Human Rights Cases Against Royal Dutch/Shell (June 8, 2009)

Shell's oil operations in Ogoni, Nigeria proved a key corporate asset for decades, but the damage to local communities and the environment has finally caught up with the company. Shell has finally agreed to a major settlement in a landmark case, charging the firm with human rights violations. The case, culminating a 13 year campaign, was brought in New York on behalf of Ogoni plaintiffs under the Alien Tort Claims Act. This case, while significant, marks only the beginning in the reconciliation of issues between Shell and the Ogoni people. (Common Dreams)


JINN Statement on Verdict: We Still Claim Victory Despite Chevron's Acquittal (December 1, 2008)

A US district court acquitted oil giant Chevron for aiding and abetting human rights violations by the Nigerian police and military against local protesters. Bowoto v. Chevron was the first case under the Alien Tort Claims Act to appear before a jury. In the past, there has been an ATCA case against US company Unocal for violating Burmese citizens' human rights when building an oil pipeline. Another case concerns Yahoo for providing the Chinese government information they could use to arrest a dissident. (Justice in Nigeria)

Chevron Faces Suit Over Nigerian Violence (October 26, 2008)

US oil company Chevron faces a lawsuit under the US Alien Tort Claims Act because Nigerian protesters accuse the company of violently disrupting a 1998 protest against unfair employment practices and the destruction of fresh water, farmlands and fishing as a result of oil drilling. Under the US Alien Tort Claims Act the protesters have accused Chevron of being responsible for the death of two protesters and the injuries of two others. (San Francisco Chronicle)

U.S. High Court Allows Apartheid Claims against Multinationals (May 13, 2008)

South African residents aim to sue several multinationals operating in South Africa during the Apartheid regime (1948 to 1994). The plaintiffs argue that these corporations, like Deutsche Bank and Coca-Cola, "aided and abetted" the racist regime by doing business in the country. The US Supreme Court ruled that the case can be brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. This case clashes with South Africans post-Apartheid policy of "reconciliation and reconstruction," rather than "victors' justice." The US Justice Department also objects to the case, arguing that judges are not world legislators who can decide "which international human rights violations to punish." (Christian Science Monitor)

The Global Context of Human Rights Violations: The Impact of the Alien Tort Claims Act (April 2008)

John Betton argues that the Alien Tort Claims Act (ACTA) increases corporate global accountability for human rights violations by enforcing international law. In practice, ACTA's influence on international corporations is unclear, however, because only three cases since 2005 have been successful. (Journal of Business Systems, Governance and Ethics)


Don't Be Dubbed a Human Rights Abuser (October 22, 2007)

A claim filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act 1789 (ATCA) alleging that an international mining company hired paramilitaries to murder three labor leaders in Colombia is rejected at trial. Despite the outcome, legal commentators suggest this case signals the beginning of ATCA claims against other multinational companies, including Bridgestone Firestone, Yahoo, Nestle, and Dole Foods. The author recommends that international companies implement measures such as the creation of a code of conduct to guard against human rights abuses abroad. (Legal Times)

To Avoid Risk of Alien Tort Claims Act Cases, Companies Must Improve Human Rights (August 17, 2007)

In the first Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) case to make it through trial, a US court finds Drummond Coal not guilty of the murder of three union leaders in its Colombian mine. According to this article, companies facing ongoing human rights charges in US courts under ATCA should not assume similar results for their cases. Cynthia Williams, a University of Illinois business law professor, draws attention to the cases against tobacco companies "where for twenty years the few cases that went to trial were unsuccessful." Companies that face ATCA cases include Texaco (a subsidiary of Chevron), Coca-Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Firestone, Shell and Wal-Mart.


Win or Lose in Court (Summer 2006)

Since 1993, lawyers in the US have filed 36 corporate human rights abuse suits under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a 1789 law which extends US jurisdiction to cover violations of international law abroad. While human rights activists view the ATCA as "the only effective tool" for holding corporations accountable, only 13 cases remain ongoing compared to 20 dismissals and three out-of-court settlements. Although these figures may not represent a real threat to companies, the negative publicity generated by such procedures might encourage some businesses to improve their human rights records abroad. (Business Ethics)


US Bill Puts Oil before Human Rights (October 26, 2005)

A US Senator has introduced a bill to US Congress which, if passed, would cripple the Alien Tort Claims Act. Among other things, the bill would allow the US president to dismiss any suit "deemed to interfere with foreign policy." In an age of increasing energy insecurity, such a change could give transnational oil companies free reign to ruin the environment and violate human rights with impunity. (OhmyNews)

The Unocal Settlement: Implications for Developing Law on Corporate Complicity in Human Rights Abuses (Fall 2005)

Unocal reached a settlement with Burmese villagers following litigation alleging human rights abuses in construction of a gas pipeline in March 2005. The lawsuit had proceeded further than any other litigation brought under the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA) and signifies new hope that transnational corporations will be held accountable for human rights violations. The case however did not reach a jury trial which would have brought further public attention to Unocal's actions. The article highlights the "turning of the tides" towards contemporary use of the ATCA, and the various cases that have established precedent. (Washington College of Law)

Liability Forges a New Morality (August 3, 2005)

Lawyers' use of the Alien Tort Claims Act as a legal device for seeking damages for human rights abuses is changing the moral landscape of multinational corporations (MNCs). Even though most cases against corporations do not result in legal victories for the plaintiffs, the suits still force CEOs of MNCs to focus more stringently on corporate social responsibility in order to protect their brands and deflect negative press. (The Age)

Unocal Settles Human Rights Lawsuit (March 22, 2005)

Unocal Corporation finalized settlement of the "landmark" lawsuit filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of 15 Myanmar villagers; victims of human rights abuses committed by troops assigned to protect the Unocal pipeline route. Some observers have hailed the settlement as a human rights victory, but others believe a trial would have shed more light on international corporate human rights abuses. (Los Angeles Times)

Appeal Upholds Crime Against Humanity Finding in Chilean Torture (March 15, 2005)

A US federal appeals court upheld a $4 million lawsuit against former Chilean army officer Armando Fernandez Larios , held responsible for the 1973 murder of political prisoner Winston Cabello. Cabello's relatives sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act, and a jury awarded the verdict in 2003 in what amounted to the nation's first ruling by a US jury for crimes against humanity. (Associated Press)

Khulumani's Reparations Case and the Future of Human Rights (January 6, 2005)

South African human rights organization Khulumani Support Group is awaiting an appeal decision in the US on its "vital test case" against multinational corporations for supporting atrocities committed during apartheid. The action was brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) on behalf of victims, and if successful, could promote the ATCA as a legitimate avenue for the remedy of human rights abuses. (Pambazuka)


Unocal To Settle Rights Claims (December 14, 2004)

California-based Unocal Corporation agreed to settle in lawsuits filed by 15 Myanmar villagers, who claim Burmese troops abused them while protecting the energy giant's natural gas pipeline. Though some US companies have settled human rights lawsuits out of court, the Unocal case—one of the most developed under the Alien Tort Claims Act—may provide new direction for pending lawsuits against IBM, ChevronTexaco and other large corporations. (Los Angeles Times)

Four Ex-Detainees Sue Rumsfeld, 10 Others (October 28, 2004)

Former Guantanamo ex-detainees sued top US military officials for violating national and international human rights laws in what could become a landmark case of the Alien Tort Claims Act. US officials say they upheld all legal obligations, even though the Bush administration has said the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Afghan conflict. The ex-detainees cite "top secret memos" made public after the prison abuse scandals as among the evidence against the officials. (Boston Globe)

Not in Their Backyard (July 14, 2004)

Corpwatch highlights the effects of the US Supreme Court decision that allows foreign citizens to bring cases to US courts under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Though the ATCA ruling has most often led to human rights cases against transnational corporations, this article suggests the ruling will also help foreign citizens address prisoner abuse scandals in the US.

Ruling Makes It Harder for Foreigners to Sue in US Courts (June 30, 2004)

This Christian Science Monitor article puts in perspective the US Supreme Court ruling on the Alien Tort Claims Act - frequently described as a human rights victory. While the ruling will keep US courts open to foreign victims of human rights violations, it also empowers judges to decide which international legal standards should apply in particular cases and whether the conduct in question violates those standards.

Helping Bush Bushwhack Justice (April 27, 2004)

The UK, Australia and Switzerland submitted a brief to the US Supreme Court supporting the Bush administration's bid to stop the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act. The governments argue that domestic courts should not interfere in matters falling under foreign jurisdictions. (Guardian)

When Can Foreigners Sue In US Courts? (March 30, 2004)

Human rights activist and legal experts are paying close attention to the US Supreme Court case Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, brought to the court under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The outcome of the case could determine the role of American judges in enforcing international human rights and help define the place for international law in US courts. (Christian Science Monitor)

Supreme Court Asked to Stop Abuse of Alien Tort Statute (January 26, 2004)

The International Chamber of Commerce and major American business groups submitted an amicus brief calling on the United States Supreme Court to clarify the Alien Tort Statue. The brief claims that the law "increasingly interfered with international investment flows and US foreign relations" and condemns it as an "unacceptable extraterritorial extension of US jurisdiction." (International Chamber of Commerce)

Unocal Cannot Be Blamed for Myanmar Rights Abuses: US Judge (January 23, 2004)

The Los Angeles Superior Court has ruled in favor of the US oil giant Unocal in a lawsuit which accused the company of human right abuses during the building of a gas pipeline in Myanmar in the 1990's. The plaintiffs' lawyer argued that Unocal set up "corporate shells" to avoid liability for the human right violations. However, the court found Unocal was not liable for the conduct of its subsidiaries. (Agence France Presse)

DaimlerChrysler Sued Over Alleged Argentine Abuses (January 14, 2004)

DaimlerChrysler AG faces charges under the Alien Tort Claims Act over its alleged role in the disappearance and torture of workers and union leaders during Argentina's "Dirty War." The plaintiffs argue that the disappearances "were carried out by state security forces acting under the direction and collaboration" of Mercedes Benz Argentina. (Reuters)





FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.