A Needed Human Rights Law

New York Times


In 1996, American lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Swiss banks of withholding the assets of Holocaust victims. Two years later, the suit was settled, and a fund of $1.25 billion was established to pay those with legitimate claims. The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act -- a little-known statute that is a powerful tool for promoting human rights. But now the Justice Department wants to end the law's use in such suits, a reversal that would effectively grant impunity to those who abuse human rights abroad.

The law has been around since 1789, but it has been applied in human rights cases only recently. In 1980 a federal court used the act to rule for the family of a Paraguayan who had been tortured to death by a policeman. The court ruled that foreigners can use the law to sue those who commit serious human rights violations overseas. Since then, victims have sued Ferdinand Marcos, the former Philippine president, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Cuban officials.

The world largely accepts the principle that gross abusers of human rights cannot go free simply because they are powerful enough to avoid justice at home. What has drawn the Bush administration's wrath are lawsuits against corporations. Four suits are pending against energy companies, alleging all were complicit in serious human rights abuses abroad. The Justice Department filed its brief in a suit brought by citizens of Myanmar alleging that Unocal knew of and profited from forced labor and other abuses during the construction of a gas pipeline. In that and other suits, the administration has told judges that ruling against the corporations would endanger American interests or the war on terror. It is seeking a ruling that such suits cannot be brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Courts have ruled that companies can be held liable under the law only if they committed crimes or knowingly collaborated in them. The possibility of lawsuits has been a major impulse for oil and gas companies to work with human rights groups to change their practices. To stop lawsuits under this act would be to put abusive individuals and companies above the law.