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What is the Alien Tort Claims Act?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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The Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) or Alien Tort Statute is a section of the United States Code that allows aliens in the United States to bring civil suits in cases where laws violate international standards or treaties that the United States is a signatory to. This particular statute has been used as the grounds for filing a number of human rights suits in the United States.

The text of the Alien Tort Claims Act can be found in section 1350, title 28 of the United States Code. It reads: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” It was introduced into law in 1789 and proceeded to lie fallow for the next 200 years. There is considerable debate about why the Alien Tort Claims Act was introduced and very little documentation exists to explain it.

In the 1980s, a citizen of Paraguay brought a suit in the United States against a Paraguayan police officer for abuse. The court had jurisdiction under the terms of the Alien Tort Claims Act because the victim was filing a civil suit and the case involved activity that violated international law. The Paraguayan man successfully won a judgment and paved the way for a parade of human rights cases of a similar nature.

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When human rights violations occur overseas, they can be difficult to prosecute. The victims may be too afraid of reprisal to file suit in their home nations and if they flee, returning home could be dangerous. An individual country may not have laws against activities like torture or may fail to take the case seriously. The Alien Tort Claims Act provides a mechanism for people to file suits in situations in which their human rights have been violated and it has been used in many different types of cases, especially cases of torture.

Human rights advocates find the Alien Tort Claims Act a very useful tool. Even if it is not realistically possible to collect a judgment as a result of a case held in the United States, the case sends a clear message. However, some people fear that the Act has a potential for abuse. For example, companies that comply with the laws in their home nations could potentially be sued in the United States, raising questions about how far American jurisdiction should extend, and over what kinds of cases.

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