Using national laws to bring to justice those who perpetrate crimes against humanity in other countries

The International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) uses the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) to bring legal cases against multinational corporations complicit in human rights abuses. Dating to 1789 and created to address and prevent piracy, the ATCA is a United States federal statute allowing foreign nationals to bring civil actions against U.S. citizens and corporations for violations of international law. While legal tactics have long been used to provide redress for human rights, the use of national laws for abuses taking place outside of a country represents a new opportunity for victims of human rights violations. This approach is also unique in its focus on abuses committed by multinational corporations.

Many foreign nationals do not have the option to bring cases in their own countries. ILRF’s first ATCA case, for example, was brought against the energy company Unocal on behalf of Burmese refugees for the use of forced labor on an oil pipeline in Burma. If the refugees had complained in Burma, they might have faced imprisonment, torture or death, since it is against the law to provide information to foreigners about the government. The ATCA, however, allowed the foreign nationals to bring the case to the United States. For a case to be considered, there must be evidence that the corporation knowingly participated in the violation; the ILRF is working to prove this.

In addition to the case against Unocal, the ILRF has brought cases against Coca-Cola, Exxon-Mobil, Drummond and Del Monte. None of these cases has yet been concluded. The ATCA is currently being reviewed by the United States Attorney General’s office, which seeks to limit the reach of the statute.

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

What we can learn from this tactic: 

A group in the United States uses a longstanding federal statute to allow victims of human rights abuses in other countries to bring legal cases against corporations complicit in the abuse.

Current mechanisms in international human rights laws are not particularly effective against transnational corporations. This tactic uses available national laws to broaden the opportunities for redress for victims of the most serious human rights abuses. It also sends a message to transnational corporations that they will be held responsible for human rights violations facilitated by their business ventures, while at the same time raising awareness among the general public.

The ATCA or similar laws could be used by victims in other countries where abuse is ongoing or where there is no opportunity for legal recourse. The ATCA itself, however, is interpreted narrowly to apply only to the most serious human rights abuses — genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, slavery, extrajudicial killing, torture and unlawful detention.