The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), also known as the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), is a powerful legal tool that allows foreign victims of human rights abuse to seek civil remedies in U.S. courts. It has been used to bring claims against government officials and non-state actors, including multinational corporations. In brief, the ATS allows suits in U.S. federal courts against those who have participated in violations of international law, including international human rights law.
The ATS was enacted in 1789 but was little-used until 1979, when the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed claims in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala. In Filártiga, a Paraguayan police officer had tortured a young man to death and later moved to the U.S. When the victim’s family found the torturer in the U.S., CCR brought suit under the ATS. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Filártigas in a historic moment for human rights litigation that paved the way for the modern use of the ATS.
In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the ATS provided a basis for lawsuits based on human rights violations. In Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, the court ruled that suits could be brought where the victim had suffered a violation of an international human rights norm that was universally accepted and obligatory on all nations.
The ATS has been used to seek justice for some of the worst human rights crimes of the modern era, including genocide in Rwanda and in Bosnia, paramilitary killings in Colombia, torture and extrajudicial killing in Somalia, crimes against humanity in the Sudan, abuses of the apartheid regime in South Africa, disappearances during the “dirty war” in Argentina, rape and forced labor in Burma (Myanmar), and military abuses and medical experimentation on children in Nigeria. In each case the ATS has been a beacon of hope for victims from around the world, and it affirms the position of the United States as a leader in the promotion of human rights and the rule of law.