U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to scrap an 18th-century law that allows victims of human-rights violations to seek compensatory relief.
In early May, Ashcrofts Justice Department asked a federal appeals court to take another look at the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 214-year-old law that allows noncitizens the right to sue in U.S. courts for atrocities committed overseas. Ashcroft was out to help Unocal, which was sued in 1996 by Burmese villagers, alleging that the oil company should share blame for the rape, murder and acts of forced labor committed by Burmese soldiers providing security for its Yadana Pipeline project.
The law, passed by the first U.S. Congress, grants federal district courts jurisdiction over civil actions by a foreigner for abuses committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the U.S. First used to prosecute pirates and protect foreign diplomats, the statute languished for almost 200 years until the late 1970s, when lawyers used it to successfully represent Dollie Filartiga, whose brother was tortured and killed in his native Paraguay by a police officer who had settled in the U.S.
Until now, no administration has sought to stop the cases, which have included a lawsuit filed by Nazi Holocaust survivors to recoup cash or insurance claims from Swiss banks after World War II. The case led to a $1.25 billion settlement negotiated by the U.S. government.
The Unocal case is now being heard by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California.
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