The Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004

For approximately the next 25 years after the Second Circuit’s decision in 1980 in the Filartiga case,[1] the lower federal courts throughout the country upheld at least 16 ATS lawsuits against foreign government officials for violations of international human rights norms.[2]

The Second Circuit itself held that the ATS was not limited to state actors and that certain acts violate the law of nations whether done by state officials or private individuals. Examples of conduct not requiring state action were genocide and certain war crimes. The court also held that de facto states could be liable for torture.[3]

Some ATS cases also were brought against foreign and U.S. corporations for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights violations.[4] One such case was a class action against Swiss banks to recover the bank accounts of Holocaust victims. After the trial court’s denial of the defendants’ dismissal motion, the banks settled the case for a payment of $1.25 billion. Another case was a class action against European insurance companies for failure to pay life insurance benefits for Holocaust victims because there were no proofs of death. This case also was settled with the companies establishing the International Commission for Holocaust-Era Claims that spent $55 million in administrative costs and paid out $35 million of claims.[5]

Three of the plaintiffs’ attorneys active in this field argue that the ATS cases contribute to a global struggle against impunity for human rights violators by:

  • “(1) helping to ensure that the United States does not remain a safe haven for such perpetrators,(2) holding individual perpetrators accountable for human rights abuses, (3) providing the victims with some sense of official acknowledgement and reparation, (4) contributing to the development of international human rights law, . . . (5) building a constituency in the United States that supports the application of international law in such cases and an awareness about human rights violations in countries in all regions of the world . . ., (6) [helping to] create a climate of deterrence and (7) [helping to] catalyze efforts in several countries to prosecute their own human rights violators.”[6]

During this 25-year period, the lower federal courts had no guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court on interpreting the ATS. That changed in 2004 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain[7] that will be discussed in a subsequent post.

[1] See Post: U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011); 28 U.S.C.§ 1350. During this period most cases and commentaries referred to the statute as the Alien Tort Claims Act or ATCA.

[2] E.g., David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process, at 958-59, 962-63 (4th ed. 2009)[“Weissbrodt”]; Coliver, Green & Hoffman, Holding Human Rights Violators Accountable by Using International Law in U.S. Courts: Advocacy Efforts and Complementary Strategies, 19 Emory Int’l L. Rev. 169, 174-86 (2005)[“Coliver”].

[3] Kadic v. Karadzic, 70 F.3d 232 (2d Cir. 1995); Weissbrodt at 962-63.

[4]  The viability of ATS cases against corporations is now an issue before the U.S. Supreme Court. (See Post: Alien Tort Statute: Important Cases Heading to U.S. Supreme Court (July 9, 2011); Post: U.S. Supreme Court To Hear Cases Challenging Whether Corporations Can Be Held Liable for Aiding and Abetting Foreign Human Rights Violations (Oct. 17, 2011).

[5]  Weissbrodt at 962.

[6]  Coliver at 174-86.

[7] Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004).

The Alien Tort Statute Interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004

The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) was enacted by the Congress in 1789 and then virtually was unused through 1979. In 1980 that changed when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided that the ATS permitted a lawsuit for money damages by two Paraguayans against another Paraguayan for the torture and killing of a member of their family. For the next 25 years without guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court the lower federal courts upheld many similar cases under the ATS.[1]

In 2004 the Supreme Court finally entered the discussion.

Justice David Souter

In Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004), the U.S. Supreme Court, 9-0, held that a single illegal detention of less than a day, followed by a transfer of custody to lawful authorities and a prompt arraignment did not violate any treaty or norm of customary international law, and, thus, the plaintiff did not have a valid claim for damages under the ATS.[2]

In reaching this holding, the Court, 9-0, in an opinion by Justice Souter, made the following conclusions regarding the ATS:

  •   The ATS is a jurisdictional statute and does not create a cause of action (id. at 713-14, 729).
  •  Torts in violation of the law of nations were recognized as being within the common law in 1789, when the ATS was adopted (id. at 714-15, 729).
  • Although it is difficult to be certain about congressional intent in adopting the ATS in 1789, Congress did not intend the ATS to be a dead letter until a future Congress or state legislature adopted a statute creating causes of action for torts against the law of nations and instead intended the ATS to be a jurisdictional basis for a “relatively modest set” of such causes of action (id. at 716-24).

The opinion for the Court, 6 to 3, went on to hold that customary international law was part of federal common law, that such international law constituted the customs and usages of civilized nations, as evidenced by the works of well qualified jurists and commentators, and that such international law to give rise to a cause of action for damages under the ATS must have the definite content and acceptance among civilized nations equivalent to the late 18th century’s ban on piracy, infringements on the rights of ambassadors and violation of safe conducts. (Id. at 724-25, 731-32.)[3]

The Court also noted, 6-3, these reasons for “judicial caution” in creating or recognizing such claims in the common law: (1) the concept of common law had radically changed from 1789 to one acknowledging that such law is created or made; (2) common law (since Eire R. Co. v. Tompkins in 1938) is now generally a matter of state law, leaving federal common law to “havens of specialty;” (3) the Supreme Court recently and repeatedly has said that creation of private causes of action generally is better left to legislative judgment; (4) creation of common law causes of action for torts against the law of nations can affect foreign relations which is the responsibility of other branches of government; and (5) Congress has not specifically authorized or encouraged the courts to create such causes of action (id. at 725-30).

In this regard, the opinion, 6-3, said that the lower federal courts since 1980 generally had taken this approach to recognizing such causes of action. It cited the Second Circuit’s opinion in Filartigav. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980), that the torturer was like the pirate and slave trader (542 U.S. at    732).[4] The Court also suggested that what was sufficiently definite to be recognized as such a tort as a matter of common law could change over time, citing conflicting lower court opinions, separated by 11 years, on the issue of whether a private actor like a corporation or individual could be liable for such a tort (id. at 732, n.20). In addition, the Court suggested that exhaustion of domestic remedies and case-specific deference to the political branches could be additional limitations on creation or recognition of such torts. (Id. at 733, n.21).

In resolving the specific issue before them, the Court also evaluated the relevance of certain international human rights instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Court said, “does not of its own force impose obligations as a matter of international law” (id. at 734-35). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the other hand, did impose obligations on the United States because of its ratification of same, but that ratification was “on the express understanding that it was not self-executing and so did not itself create obligations enforceable in the federal courts” (id. at 735). Indeed, the more general use of such understandings or declarations that certain treaties were not self-executing was recognized by the Court earlier in its opinion (id. at 728).[5]

[1] See Post: The U.S. Alien Tort Statute, 1789-1979 (Oct. 21, 2011); Post: U.S. Court of Appeals’ 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011); Post: The U.S. Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004 (Oct. 25, 2011).

[2]  Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, 542 U.S. 692 (2004). The Court also held, 9-0, that the United States Government was immune from liability on the plaintiff’s claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (id. at 699-712). Justice Ginsburg, concurring, reached the same result on different grounds (id. at 751-60).

[3]  Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, dissented on the issue of the federal courts’ ability to recognize or create new causes of action for such torts as a matter of federal common law (id. at 738-51.)

[4]  See: Post: U.S. Court of Appeals’ 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011). The concurring opinion of Justice Breyer in Sosa suggested that torture, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes constituted matters that were appropriate for damages claims under international law as incorporated into federal common law. (Id. at 760-63.) Justice Breyer also suggested that recognition of such causes of action as a matter of federal common law was consistent with notions of international comity and that the concept of universal jurisdiction for criminal prosecutions was the way to take into account this comity consideration (id.).

[5]  The Court did not consider any treaties that were not ratified by the U.S., but the opinion for the Court strongly suggests that they would not be given any weight.

U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable

The U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) was originally enacted in 1789 and was virtually unused through 1979.[1] This changed in 1980 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City decided a case, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala.[2]

Dr. Joel & Dolly Filartiga

The facts giving rise to the case arose in Paraguay in 1976. Dr. Joel Filartiga was well-known in his country as a physician, painter and opponent of his country’s dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner. In March of that year, Filartiga’s 17-year-old son Joelito was kidnapped, tortured and killed. In the middle of the night of the abduction, Joelito’s sister, Dolly, was forced out of the house to go view the mutilated body of her brother. All of these horrendous acts allegedly were committed by Americo Norberto Pena-Irala, who was a police official in the city where the Filartiga family lived.[3]

In 1978 Dolly Filartiga, who was living in New York City, learned that Pena-Irala also was in the City. With the assistance of the Center for Constitutional Rights[4] she commenced a civil lawsuit for money damages under the ATS in U.S. federal court on behalf of herself and her father against Pena-Irala. The complaint alleged that as a police inspector general in Paraguay he had kidnapped and tortured to death Joelito Filartiga in violation of international law.[5] The district court, however,  dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

On appeal and at the request of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the Carter Administration’s Department of Justice advised the court that the universal and fundamental prohibition against torture protected individuals from their own governments, that enforcement of this norm in cases under the ATS would not undermine U.S. foreign policy interests and that failure to entertain such cases could undermine U.S. credibility regarding international human rights and our ability to influence states with poor human rights records.[6]

Later the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Second Circuit held that “an act of torture committed by a state official against one held in detention violates established norms of the international law of human rights, and hence the law of nations.” As a result, the complaint had a proper basis for federal jurisdiction under the ATS.[7]

On remand, the defendant (Pena-Irala) took no further part in the case and thus defaulted. The district court then entered judgment against him and in favor of the father for $5,210,364 and in favor of the sister for $5,175,000.[8]

This case established many firsts. The ATS supports assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction over events happening in other countries. International human rights norms are justiciable, i.e., they can be adjudicated by U.S. federal courts. The individual as victim and perpetrator is a proper subject of international law. A robust system of accountability for foreign human rights violations under the ATS is consistent with the national interest of the U.S.[9]

Thereafter for the next 25 years Filartiga was followed by other lower federal courts without any guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, which will be the subject of another post.

[1]  See Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 1789-1979 (Oct. 21, 2011).

[2]  Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980).

[3] Id.; Center for Constitutional Rights, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala,; Wikipedia, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala,; William Aceves, The Anatomy of Torture: A Documentary History of Filartiga v. Pena-Irala (Brill; 2007); Richard Alan White, Breaking Silence: the Case That Changed the Face of Human Rights (Georgetown Univ. Press; Washington, D.C. 2004); HBO Docudrama, One Man’s War (1991).

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which was founded in 1966 and based in New York city, is “dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” (CCR, Mission and History,

[5]  See n.3 supra.

[6] Schaack, Read On! The Definitive Filartiga, IntLawGrrls (June 27, 2008); Center for Constitutional Rights, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala,

[7] Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876 (2d Cir. 1980).

[8]  Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 577 F. Supp. 860 (E.D.N.Y.1984). Twenty years later, the Filartigas had not collected anything on the judgment, but were still trying to do so. (Boustany, For a Sister, Court Fight Stirs Memories of Paraguay, Wash. Post (Apr. 2, 2004).

[9] Schaack, Read On! The Definitive Filartiga, IntLawGrrls (June 27, 2008).