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The Alien Tort Claims Act: How Powerful a Human Rights Weapon Is It?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A little less than two weeks ago, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court resolved the case of Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain. The case required the Court to interpret both the Federal Torts Claim Act (FTCA) and the Alien Tort Statute, better known as the Alien Tort Claim Act (ATCA).

The decision was eagerly awaited by both human rights groups and multinational corporations. The Bush Justice Department had urged the Court to restrict, if not completely gut, the scope of the ATCA - a reading that would have greatly benefited multinationals. In contrast, human rights groups had urged the Court to read the statute broadly, to vindicate the rights to noncitizens to sue for human rights violations in U.S. federal courts.

The Court's decision seemed to rebuke the government. Accordingly, the media generally portrayed the decision as a victory for the human rights community. But in fact, as I will argue in this column, the Court's opinion in Sosa cannot be easily categorized as a victory for anyone.

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