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Blog: Alien Tort Statute

December 9, 2020

Pursuing U.S. accountability for child slavery abroad


HLS student clinical team submits Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of legal historians


On Dec. 1, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Nestlé v. Doe and Cargill v. Doe—a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S.-based chocolate companies for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. Despite repeated promises from chocolate companies to curtail the practice, the problem remains far from fixed, with some estimates finding as many as 1.56 million children aged five to seventeen forced to harvest cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in 2018 and 2019 alone. The plaintiffs are six former child slaves who allege they were trafficked from Mali and forced to work in Côte d’Ivoire cocoa farms. The plaintiffs make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that has allowed foreign nationals to pursue accountability for human rights violations in U.S. courts over the past several decades.

In October, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of legal historians in the consolidated cases against the chocolate companies. A student clinical team—Emily Ray ’21, Jasmine Shin ’21, Allison Beeman ’22, and Zarka Shabir ’22—under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, clinic co-director, worked with the amici on the brief. Amici were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Columbia Law School, Nikolas Bowie ’14, Harvard Law School, William R. Casto, Texas Tech University School of Law, Martin S. Flaherty, Fordham School of Law, David Golove, New York University Law School, Eliga H. Gould, University of New Hampshire, Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University, Samuel Moyn ’01, Yale Law School, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’85, Princeton University and CEO of New America.

The Human Rights Program (HRP) at HLS spoke with the team about the ATS, their brief, and why the SCOTUS argument matters for human rights and corporate accountability.


Human Rights Program: What is at stake in the case?

Emily Ray: The ATS has been a key tool for many survivors of human rights abuses who have been unable to find justice in domestic court systems in their own countries or through international bodies like the International Criminal Court. For years, the ATS was groundbreaking because it allowed foreign plaintiffs to bring civil claims in U.S. courts for torts that violate the law of nations. The Supreme Court has placed restrictions in recent years on the statute, and this case decides, among other issues, whether the ATS can be used to bring cases against American corporations who have perpetrated or assisted in the perpetration of human rights abuses around the world. What the Supreme Court decides will have far reaching effects on that question.

Zarka Shabir: For me, what’s at stake is the idea that a U.S. corporation can be held liable in the United States for its involvement in rights violations regardless of where it commits them. It’s the idea that a corporation cannot, simply by virtue of being a corporation, violate accepted international law with impunity. One of the questions in the case is whether the ATS should permit claims against natural persons but not corporate entities, as Nestlé and Cargill have argued. During oral arguments, several Justices pressing counsel for the companies and the U.S. government on that point. Across the globe, an increasing number of countries have recognized that corporations cannot be left immune and without scrutiny. This case presents an opportunity for the United States to stay on track with this global trend.

Tyler Giannini: One of the reasons the First Congress passed the ATS was to send a signal to other nations that the United States would uphold the rule of law and that it could be trusted as part of the international community. This was especially true as a young nation at the time. While it’s no longer a new nation, the question of whether the U.S. will uphold basic principles of law and human rights has come under scrutiny again in recent years. As we said in the brief, it’s well established that a nation should hold its own citizens to account and not let action on its territory offend other countries and accepted international norms. The Court has the chance to affirm this idea in this case and to make clear that U.S. corporations can’t aid abuses like child slavery.

Jasmine Shin: Simply put, what’s at stake in this case is justice for the six plaintiffs who were trafficked and forced to endure unimaginable conditions. This case was first filed fifteen years ago, and these plaintiffs, who are now in their thirties, have not been able to have their day in court.

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December 1, 2020

Supreme Court Hears Case on Child Slavery in Cocoa Industry


Clinic Submits Amicus Curiae Brief on Behalf of Legal Historians


Today, Dec. 1, the Supreme Court of the United States hears oral arguments in a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S. based chocolate companies Nestlé and Cargill for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. The plaintiffs, six survivors of kidnapping, trafficking, and forced labor, make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that allows foreign nationals to pursue accountability for law of nations violations in U.S. Courts. In examining the cases, the Supreme Court will consider the question of corporate liability under the ATS for the third time – this time focusing on whether or not the ATS permits cases against U.S. domestic corporations at all.

In October, the International Human Rights Clinic filed an amicus brief on behalf of legal historians in the case against the chocolate companies. The brief includes newly uncovered historical documents from George Washington’s first administration which clearly demonstrate how the founders intended the ATS to apply to violations committed by U.S. subjects. The documents include an opinion by Thomas Jefferson and affirm that the ATS was intended for the very purpose at issue in the current cases: to provide options for redress to foreign nationals whose rights have been violated by U.S. subjects.

A clinical team – Emily Ray JD’21, Jasmine Shin JD’21, Allison Beeman JD’22, and Zarka Shabir JD’22 – under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, Clinic Co-Director worked with the amici on the brief. Amici on the brief were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Nikolas Bowie, William R. Casto, Martin S. Flaherty, David Golove, Eliga H. Gould, Stanley N. Katz, Samuel Moyn, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The International Human Rights Clinic staff have played a major role in ATS litigation for decades, including in landmark corporate cases such as Doe v. Unocal and Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Since 1980, the law has been a critical means of holding perpetrators accountable for abuses such as extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity when redress might otherwise be unavailable elsewhere. Still, in recent years, the law has been curtailed and challenged.

You can listen to the oral argument here.

Learn more about the case in the Nestlé & Cargill v. Doe symposium on Just Security and the case preview on SCOTUSblog. Read about all eighteen amicus briefs filed in support of the survivors of child trafficking on the Corporate Accountability Lab’s blog, and dive into Daniel Golove’s article exploring the significance of the new evidence the Clinic relied on in its brief supporting plaintiffs.

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January 29, 2015

Clinic Files Opening Brief in Apartheid Litigation Appeal

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

The Clinic and our partners filed an opening brief yesterday in the Second Circuit in an appeal in In re South African Apartheid Litigation. The case, which is being litigated under the Alien Tort Statute, seeks relief against IBM and Ford for assisting and supporting human rights violations committed in apartheid South Africa.

Back in August, the district court dismissed the case when the court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amended complaint against these two U.S. Defendants. The lower court reasoned that the claims did not sufficiently “touch and concern” the territory of the United States, as required by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which established a presumption against extraterritoriality in ATS cases.

On appeal, Plaintiffs contend that the lower court failed to undertake the necessary inquiry into the U.S. Defendants’ own conduct in the United States, and instead focused only on actions that took place in South Africa. The proposed amended complaint contains detailed new allegations about how, from the United States, both Defendant corporations aided and abetted the South African security forces and government to commit human rights violations over several decades. Defendants will file their opposition brief in the coming months.

Clinical students Ariel Nelson, J.D. ’15, Brian Klosterboer, J.D. ’16, and Peter Stavros, J.D. ’16, contributed research and drafting for the brief.

November 6, 2013

Clinic Files Amici Curiae Brief In One of First ATS Cases to Reach Appeal Since Kiobel

Posted by Betsey Boutelle, JD '14

The International Human Rights Clinic filed an amici curiae brief yesterday on behalf of legal historians in one of the first major Alien Tort Statute (ATS) cases to reach a court of appeals since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co in April.

The case, Al Shimari v. CACI Premier Technology, Inc., alleges that employees of CACI, a private military contractor, participated in the torture and degrading treatment of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004. The four plaintiffs in the case were detained in Abu Ghraib during that time and allege that they suffered abuses at the express command of several CACI employees operating in the prison.

In June, a Virginia district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. The court believed that Kiobel foreclosed ATS liability for international law violations committed outside the United States—even when the defendants are American. The Al Shimari plaintiffs have now appealed to the Fourth Circuit, arguing that Kiobel’s limit on extraterritorial ATS claims does not apply, because their case involves U.S. defendants operating in American-controlled territory.

Six professors of legal history signed the amicus brief, arguing that the history and purpose of the ATS clearly indicates that the Founders would have allowed claims against U.S. citizens. Jurisprudence dating back to the 17th century shows that sovereign nations were expected to provide a remedy when their subjects committed violations of the law of nations, wherever the wrongs occurred.

The Founders knew the consequences of condoning violations by U.S. actors. Failure to provide redress could cause conflict and even war, and thus threaten the young nation. The ATS was one important mechanism to help avoid conflict and to bring the fledgling Republic in line with the expectations of the community of nations. In the brief, amici argue that to exclude violations by U.S. actors, wherever they might occur, would contravene the aims of the Founders when they enacted the statute.

The brief was signed by professors of legal history William R. Casto (Texas Tech University School of Law), Martin S. Flaherty (Fordham Law School), Nasser Hussain (Amherst College), Stanley M. Katz (Princeton University), Michael Lobban (London School of Economics), and Jenny S. Martinez (Stanford Law School).

Six people sit around a conference room table.
From left: Ariel, Betsey, Avery, Tyler, Oded, and Lynnette

Led by Clinical Professor Tyler Giannini and Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, clinical students Betsey Boutelle, JD ’14, Avery Halfon, JD ’15, Lynnette Miner, JD ’14, Ariel Nelson, JD ’15, and Oded Oren, JD ’15, all contributed many long hours to the effort.

September 20, 2013

Plaintiffs File Petition in Second Circuit Court of Appeals to Review Panel’s Decision in Apartheid Case

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

This week, the International Human Rights Clinic, along with co-counsel, filed a petition on behalf of plaintiffs for panel rehearing or rehearing en banc to review the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Balintulo v. Daimler AG, which is also known as the In Re South African Apartheid Litigation. The petition stated that, “The panel opinion in Balintulo v. Daimler AG  would eviscerate more than thirty years of this Court’s Alien Tort Statute (‘ATS’) jurisprudence and should be reviewed en banc because it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. as well as decisions in this Circuit.”

The petition comes more than 10 years after cases were first filed in the United States in 2002. Three defendant corporations—Ford Motor Company, Daimler AG, and International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)—remain from the original cases and are charged with complicity in the perpetration of apartheid-era crimes and human rights violations.

The petition seeks review of an August 21 decision by a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit that lifted a stay and sent the matter back to district court Judge Shira Scheindlin to consider the plaintiffs’ claims in light of the Supreme Court’s April decision in Kiobel. In the wake of the Kiobel ruling, which found that ATS claims must “touch and concern” the United States, the Second Circuit had requested letter briefs from both the plaintiffs and defendants. The briefs were submitted in late May, and in August, the Second Circuit stated that in light of Kiobel, “the Alien Tort Statute does not reach the extraterritorial conduct in this case.”

The U.S.-based lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the cases include Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, Michael Hausfeld of Hausfeld, LLP, Diane Sammons and Jay Rice of Nagel Rice LLP, and Judith Brown Chomsky of the Law Offices of Judith Brown Chomsky. The South African-based legal team includes Dumisa Ntsebeza, John Ngcebetsha, Charles Abrahams, Medi Mokuena, and Michael Osborne.

October 1, 2012

Update: Kiobel Transcript, Plus Media Coverage of the Case

Posted by Cara Solomon

For all of you Kiobel watchers, here’s the transcript for this morning’s argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ll post Tyler and Susan’s take on the questioning as soon as we can.

Esther Kiobel wears a pants suit, holding a sign outside the Supreme Court that says, "Help the oppressed bring shell to justice for genocidal activities in Niger Delta."
Esther Kiobel speaks in front of the Supreme Court today. (Photo Credit: Too Big To Punish?)

In the meantime, here’s some media coverage of the case, some of it published before the arguments and some of it published afterward. We were particularly pleased to see Desmond Tutu’s opinion piece in USA Today, which has clearly been making the rounds.

OPINION

Desmond Tutu, USA Today: “Will U.S. Rule for Rights of South Africans?”

Jodie Kirshner, The Christian Science Monitor: “Supreme Court Case Tests U.S. Leadership in Human Rights”

EDITORIALS

The New York Times: “Justice Under the Law of Nations”

The New York Times: “October Term 2012”

ARTICLES

L.A. Times: “Supreme Court Weighs Whether Foreign Victims Can Sue in U.S.”

Slate: “Torture Inc.”

SCOTUSblog: “Argument Recap: In Search of an ATS Compromise”

Reuters: “Supreme Court May Narrow Law in Human Rights Cases”

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September 30, 2012

Supreme Court to Hear Kiobel Again Tomorrow: Much More at Stake the Second Time Around

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

NOTE: The post below was originally published Saturday on Justice Watch, a project of the Alliance for Justice.


Supreme Court to Hear Major Human Rights Case Again: Much More at Stake the Second Time Around


The Supreme Court will open its new term on Monday.  The first argument it hears will be Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., the most significant human rights case to reach the Court in recent years.  Intense interest in the case has generated more than 80 amicus curiae briefs from a range of actors around the world, including governments, human rights organizations, and corporations.  Kiobel is especially intriguing not only because of the human rights issues at stake, but also because it will be the Court’s secondtime hearing oral argument in the matter.  This is a rarity; the last example was Citizen United, the major campaign finance case.

What are the issues?


Kiobel is an Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) suit based on a 1789 statute that allows non-U.S. citizens to bring civil claims in U.S. federal courts for universally recognized violations of international law.  The case arises out of allegations that Royal Dutch/Shell was complicit in killings and other abuses by the Nigerian government in the 1990s.  The Court first heard Kiobel last February, addressing the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the statute.  But in an unusual move, a week later the Court requested supplemental briefing and a second oral argument.

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September 17, 2012

Today, Sept. 18: Paul Hoffman, Lead Counsel in Kiobel, on the Future of the ATS

Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini

Please join us tomorrow, September 18, for a talk with Paul Hoffman, lead counsel in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. and Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain. Paul is the leading Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigator in the country, serving as counsel in ATS cases including Unocal, Wiwa, Apartheid, Talisman, and Kiobel, and arguing Sosa before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Event poster depicts a man in orange holding a tool. His jumpsuit says "shell" and he stands in front of machinery.

Tomorrow, from 12:00-1:00 pm in Milstein 2036, he will speak with us about the future of human rights litigation in U.S. courts in the context of Kiobel, a case against Shell for human rights violations committed in Nigeria.

Paul first argued the Kiobel case in front of the Supreme Court last February, addressing the question of whether corporations can be held liable under the statute.  In an unusual move, following that argument the Court requested supplemental briefing and reargument on the question of whether the ATS extends to international law violations committed outside the United States, in the territory of a foreign sovereign.  Given the case’s potential impact on the ability of survivors of human rights abuse to seek justice in U.S. courts, it will be a privilege to hear Paul’s thoughts as he prepares to reargue Kiobel on October 1st, in the Court’s first hearing of the new term.

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July 18, 2012

SCOTUSblog: The ATS and the Importance of Historical Evidence

Posted by Cara Solomon

NOTE: Tyler and Susan wrote the following post for SCOTUSblog’s online symposium on Kiobel. For all symposium posts, please see here.

At February’s oral argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., counsel for the petitioners responded to questions about extraterritoriality by citing the incident in Sierra Leone that led to the well-known 1795 opinion of Attorney General William Bradford. That exchange appears to have sparked the Supreme Court’s request for supplemental briefing on whether the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) applies to acts that arise on foreign territory. History, including the so-called Bradford Opinion, provides strong evidence that the ATS does apply to conduct occurring on foreign soil.

History has long been a critical part of ATS jurisprudence, given that the statute dates to 1789. Sosa guides that any ATS cause of action must be for violations of the law of nations as universally recognized as eighteenth-century paradigms, such as piracy. The text and purpose of the statute, the common law of the era, and the Bradford Opinion provide the relevant insight into the Justices’ current question about claims that arise in foreign lands – and indicate that there would have been no territorial limit on the ATS at the time of the statute’s enactment.

The Framers of the ATS were common-law lawyers, and the law of nations was part of the common law of the time. They would not have embraced a bright line, categorical exclusion of all claims arising on foreign territory – whether in a case between two aliens or some other combination of defendant and plaintiff. Instead, the Framers would have been familiar with fashioning remedies to realize the statute’s broad remedial purpose, providing relief in U.S. courts to aliens who suffered violations of international law. Indeed, as Justice Stephen Breyer noted at oral argument when he quoted from the 1666 English Skinner case, courts of the day were familiar with fundamental notions of justice and crafted common-law remedies for violations “odious and punishable by all laws of God and man.”

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June 14, 2012

History Shows That Those Who Commit International Law Violations Outside the United States Can Be Held Liable in U.S. Courts


PRESS RELEASE


Clinic files amicus curiae brief with U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of legal historians in major Alien Tort Statute case


June 14, 2012, Cambridge, MA—Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic has submitted a supplemental amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of petitioners in a major Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Nine eminent legal historians joined the brief as amici: William R. Casto, Charles Donahue, Robert W. Gordon, Nasser Hussain, Stanley N. Katz, Michael Lobban, Jenny S. Martinez, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Clinical Directors Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini served as counsel for the amici, who argue that Congress, when enacting the statute, did not intend to restrict its territorial reach. Rather, the ATS was passed to address universally-condemned violations of the law of nations, such as piracy.

“This statute was clearly designed to open U.S. courts to those who suffered egregious violations of international law, wherever they are committed,” said Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “The framers had in mind abuses like piracy, which necessarily takes place outside the United States.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kiobel in late February and a week later requested supplemental briefing on the question of whether the statute encompasses violations committed outside the territory of the United States. The case, which has attracted international attention, involves claims for human rights abuses committed in Nigeria.

“Kiobel is one of the most significant human rights cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court in years,” said Susan Farbstein, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “As a team, we felt honored to do the work of clarifying the historical record on how the courts have traditionally interpreted the ATS and the legal doctrines it embodies.”

Historical documents unearthed by the Clinic’s research team in British and American archives confirm that, from the outset, survivors could bring ATS claims for violations of international law occurring outside the United States. In one of the earliest interpretations of the statute, dating to 1795, the U.S. Attorney General opined that individuals harmed in a raid in British Sierra Leone could use the ATS to seek redress in U.S. courts.

“It’s been gratifying to see the principles of justice are transcendent throughout history,” said Russell Kornblith, JD ’12, who was a key member of the project team.

In addition to Kornblith, clinical students Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, Yonina Alexander, JD ’12, and Daniel Saver, JD ’12, contributed countless hours towards the brief, working in close collaboration with the amici. The Harvard team was supported by international researchers, including students from the School of Oriental and African Studies under the supervision of Deval Desai, LLM ’09.

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