WASHINGTON - March 29 - On March 30th, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that will determine the future of a human rights law that has provided international victims of the most heinous violations of human rights the opportunity to obtain justice.
The law in question is called the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Adopted in 1789, ATCA was one of the first laws of the new American republic. It grants U.S. courts jurisdiction in any dispute in which it is alleged that the "law of nations," also known as customary international law, is broken, thereby allowing foreign victims of serious human rights abuse abroad to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts.
In 1979, the father and sister of Joelito Filártiga, a seventeen-year-old who had been tortured to death in Paraguay, used ATCA against Joelito's torturer, who was living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time. In the Filártiga case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that ATCA allows victims to sue in U.S. courts for serious violations of international human rights law. This established the precedent that is now before the Supreme Court. "For the purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become-like the Pirate and the slave trader before him-hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind," the circuit court wrote in its landmark ruling.
Dolly Filartiga, the sister of Joelito, and the plaintiff in the landmark case, said of her victory, "Using the most brutal means, my brother's killers committed a terrible crime against me and my family. With the help of American law we were able to fight back and win. Truth overcame terror. Respect for human rights trumped torture. What better purpose can be served by a system of justice?"
Since then, federal courts have held that ATCA allows foreign victims to sue for violations such as disappearances, summary executions, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. From Ethiopia's Red Terror to Argentina's Dirty War to the Philippines' dictatorship under Marcos, survivors and their relatives have used this law to obtain a measure of justice, a sense of meaning in their survival, and the satisfaction of knowing they have honored the memory of those who were killed or disappeared.
Twelve amicus curiae briefs have been filed in support of preserving the Act. International law scholars, U.S. diplomats, survivors of and relatives of victims of human rights abuses, holocaust survivors, religious groups, human rights organizations and relatives of 9/11 victims are among those joining the effort to preserve the Act.
The case before the Court, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, involves a former Mexican policeman, José Francisco Sosa, who on behalf of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency kidnapped Dr. Humberto Alvarez-Machain, a Mexican citizen whom the agency accused of helping to kill one of its agents. Sosa brought Alvarez-Machain from Mexico to California in 1990 to stand trial for the murder."
In December 1992, a trial judge acquitted Alvarez-Machain. The court found that the government's case was based on "hunches" and the "wildest speculation." Alvarez-Machain later sued his kidnapper in a California federal court and won. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this decision, and Sosa appealed to the Supreme Court. The Departments of Justice and State have filed a brief in support of Sosa seeking to eliminate the use of this statute by survivors of human rights violations.
On March 1st, a broad range of human rights groups launched a campaign called No Safe Haven (www.nosafehaven.org) to galvanize support for preserving ATCA. Organizations supporting the campaign include Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Center for Justice and Accountability, Earthrights International, the International Labor Rights Fund, Human Rights First, international law clinics based at University of California, Berkeley, Yale University and University of Virginia. The briefs in the case are available at www.nosafehaven.org.