The Alien Tort Claims Act and Accountability For Multinational Corporations
The Alien Tort Claims Act is the only United States law permitting multinational corporations with significant assets in the United States to be held accountable for their unethical behavior elsewhere in the world. Passed in 1789 by the First Congress of the United States, it enables victims of torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity to put the corporations that are responsible on trial in American courts. In recent history, plaintiffs have used it to sue government officials involved in human rights violations, such as former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and former Serbian war leader Radovan Karadzic.
Most recently, the Alien Tort Claims Act has been used to file suits against multinational corporations complicit in egregious human rights abuses. For example:
- Burmese villagers have sued Unocal, whose corporate headquarters is just outside Long Beach, California, on charges that its partner—the Burmese military— murdered and raped villagers and forced them to work while assisting with Unocal’s pipeline project.
- Nigerian villagers sued Chevron Texaco for its complicity in murders at peaceful protests at a Chevron oil platform and the related destruction of two villages.
- Eleven Indonesian villagers are suing Exxon Mobil for human rights abuses committed by its security forces.
- Subcontractors in Iraq involved in the torture and mistreatment of prisoners are being held accountable under the legal authority of the Alien Tort Claims Act.
Although none of these cases has yet arrived at final adjudication, the corporate defendants are worried they will no longer enjoy immunity for their behavior abroad. Many influential business associations have sought to repeal, amend, or otherwise eviscerate the act. In addition, the administration of President George W. Bush has opposed the application of the Alien Tort Claims Act in numerous cases and has called for the law’s immediate repeal. Attorney General John Ashcroft has recently asked the United States Supreme Court to overturn this centuries-old law.
Our call for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations demands our support for the Alien Tort Claims Act. We must speak out for the oppressed, the victims of torture, and the exploited and against the abuses of multinational corporations. We must stand for human rights and oppose overturning the Alien Tort Claims Act.