Nushin Sarkarati from the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) was invited by The Advocates for Human Rights to present a Continuing Legal Education seminar on recent developments in litigation in U.S. courts to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights abuses around the world. Ms. Sarkarati is a CJA staff attorney whose practice focuses on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) litigation in federal court.
The ATS is a U.S. federal law first adopted in 1789 that gives the federal courts jurisdiction to hear lawsuits filed by non-U.S. citizens for torts committed in violation of international law. Today, the ATS gives survivors of egregious human rights abuses, wherever committed, the right to bring civil lawsuits against the perpetrators in the United States. Examples of the kinds of conduct covered by the ATS include torture, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, war crimes and crimes against humanity, genocide, slavery, prolonged arbitrary detention and state-sponsored sexual violence.
Under the 1991 TVPA, survivors who have no available local remedies in the country where the human rights abuses happened can file a civil lawsuit in the U.S. for damages against someone who, “under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” subjected an individual to torture or to extrajudicial killing in another country. The TVPA has a 10-year statute of limitations but equitable tolling may be available depending on the facts of the case.
Ms. Sarkarati gave an overview of the history and caselaw, from the landmark ATS case Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (2d Cir 1980) to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petrol (US 2013) which limits the ATS to claims that “touch and concern the territory of the United States with sufficient force.” She also discussed both the legal and practical challenges involved in litigating these cases.
While ATS and TVPA litigation in U.S. courts does not result in jail time for the perpetrators of serious human rights violations, there are other important reasons for using civil litigation as an accountability mechanism including:
- Redress for victims;
- Ending impunity by exposing human rights abusers;
- Denying safe haven to perpetrators in the U.S.;
- Documenting history and deterring future abuses;
- Developing human rights precedent in domestic courts; and
- Advancing transitional justice.
The Advocates for Human Rights co-sponsored the CLE with the American Constitution Society’s Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter, MSBA Human Rights Committee, Minnesotan Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and International Law Section of the Federal Bar Association. The law firm of Fredrikson & Byron hosted the CLE.
Learn more about strategies and tools for holding human rights violators accountable in Chapter 8: Accountability of The Advocates’ manual Human Rights Tools for a Changing World.
By: Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director of The Advocates of Human Rights and director of its International Justice Program.