Court of Last Resort
The New York Times
August 7, 2003
events of 9/11, as well as the war in Iraq, require our government
to intensify its efforts to combat terrorism. So it is more important
than ever that we do our utmost to show the world that we will
enforce human rights laws evenhandedly.
United States already has the tools to lead by example. The Alien
Tort Claims Act, passed in 1789 by the first Congress, allows
aliens — that is, people who are not citizens of the United
States — to sue in federal court for a "violation of
the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." More
than two centuries later, in 1992, the Torture Victim Protection
Act became law. This law creates a right for victims — even
aliens — of state-sponsored torture and summary execution
in other countries to sue in federal court here.
Despite this history,
the Justice Department has decided to contest the application
of these laws by federal courts to human rights violations. Protecting
human rights through litigation, according to the administration,
might disrupt relations with some of our allies. In a pending
federal case involving slave labor in Burma, the Justice Department
argued that this and similar lawsuits may complicate foreign policy
by angering nations helping fight terrorism.
In 1992, the Justice
Department made a similar argument. Congress considered and rejected
it, as did President George H. W. Bush. Both the president and
Congress recognized that suits brought under these laws will not
be successful against sitting governments and leaders who have
immunity. They will bear fruit only when used against former leaders
and corporations that have violated fundamental human rights laws
recognized since the trials of Nuremberg.
These two laws cover
only the most extreme violations of international law. The Alien
Tort Claims Act has been interpreted to apply only to genocide,
war crimes, piracy, slavery, torture, unlawful detention and summary
execution. The Torture Victims Protection Act is limited to torture
and summary execution. There is no room for moral relativism.
in the war on terrorism depends on a strong stand against all
terrorist acts, whether committed by foe or friend. Our credibility
in the war on terrorism is only advanced when our government enforces
laws that protect innocent victims. We then send the right message
to the world: the United States is serious about human rights.