The Alien Tort Claims Act: A Debate

Jun 01, 2004


Terry Collingsworth
General Counsel
International Labor Rights Fund

Bill Reinsch
National Foreign Trade Council 

Moderated by:
Paul Edwards 
Mercatus Center at George Mason University

The debate surrounding the use of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) has become increasingly heated over the past months.  In fact, the Supreme Court is currently considering a case, Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain, that might define how broadly or narrowly ATCA may be applied in the future.  The pending decision could have wide-ranging implications on American foreign policy as well as the international business community and the labor rights movement.  Whatever happens, it is likely that either “big business” or the “human rights community” will be dissatisfied with the outcome. In the long run, Congress may very well decide whether ATCA should continue to exist and, if so, what it should cover.

The ATCA itself was adopted in 1789 as part of the original Judiciary Act, and asserts that "[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 1350.  Proponents of broad application of ATCA often contend that the Act is one of the only measures available to hold international human rights abusers accountable for their actions.  Opponents of using ATCA as a tool in human rights litigation suggest that such cases could lead not only to a downturn in American business abroad, but to an increase in "frivolous" lawsuits.

This moderated debate will help clarify the fundamental issues surrounding the ATCA and allow for a spirited and academic discussion of the opposing views.  Time will be permitted for questions from the audience.