Using civil lawsuits to seek redress for victims of torture


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The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) helps victims of torture by using United States Federal Laws to bring charges against their torturers, regardless of the country in which the torture took place. This tactic shows that redress can be sought against perpetrators of torture. In creating and applying these kinds of laws, governments show a commitment to justice for victims and to exposing those who are guilty of crimes against humanity.

In the summer of 2002, a Florida jury awarded $54.6 million to three Salvadoran survivors who were tortured by Salvadoran security forces between 1979 and 1983. These three individuals sued the generals who commanded the soldiers that tortured them, applying the doctrine of Command Responsibility where a foreign commander is held liable for the actions of his troops. The Doctrine of Command Responsibility was last used in the Tokyo trials following World War II.

This civil suit and others like it are brought under the Torture Victims Protections Act (TVPA, 1991), and the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA, 1789). The ATCA grants jurisdiction to US federal courts to hear complaints on behalf of aliens for 'torts in violation of the law of nations or treaties of the United States'. Beginning in 1980, US courts have recognized that severe human rights abuses such as torture violate the 'law of nations' and that claims for such abuses therefore could be brought under this statute. The TVPA gives US citizen plaintiffs the right to bring claims against individuals acting under 'actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation,' for torture and extrajudicial killing. Under both laws, the perpetrator must be physically within the United States in order for the court to have jurisdiction.

The CJA’s most recent suit was brought in civil court, rather than criminal court, because in the United States, only the Department of Justice (DOJ) has the authority to initiate criminal prosecutions. The U.S. law that gives jurisdiction to U.S. courts to hear criminal cases of torture wherever committed only entered into force in November 1994. The DOJ, therefore, can only prosecute criminal acts committed after November 1994.

The use of litigation as a source of reparation for victims of torture increased significantly in the late 1990’s and is therefore a relatively new tactic. This tactic has proven successful in prosecuting torturers and finding them guilty of human rights violations. It has also been successful in gaining public acknowledgement of the wrongs committed. However, enforcing the awarded damages has been difficult and unsuccessful because either the perpetrator does not have enough money to cover the amount awarded or that money is located in accounts overseas and therefore cannot be seized by American courts. The CJA has also sought deportation of perpetrators as a redress for its clients.

Implementation of this tactic globally is problematic as it requires either national or international laws granting jurisdiction, as well as governments and organizations that are willing to prosecute the offenders. While some countries have laws facilitating this kind of prosecution, others do not. In addition, while other countries have brought charges against military officials, the progression of these cases to trial has been made more difficult in some countries by the intimidation and assassination of witnesses.


For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 
Lawsuits are a great tactic for seeking redress and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. Trials are a way for victims to share their stories and receive public recognition of wrongdoing, an important step in the healing process. 
This tactic highlights the importance of command responsibility. It is necessary to remember that although one person may have carried out the act, they aren’t always the one responsible. In cases of torture or wide spread attacks, perpetrators are often carrying out orders from a higher command. When seeking legal redress, one must identify this chain of command and pursue litigation against those giving the orders. This can be difficult to do if the person in command is the current head of state. 
It is important to recognize that legal mechanisms require long term investment from not only the organization, but the victims being willing to pursue justice and accountability in this way. See this tactic for another example of universal jurisdiction as a legal tactic.