Archive | Alien Tort Statute

How Broader Acceptance of Universal Jurisdiction Makes it Look Worse

At JustSecurity, Ryan Goodman challenges the methodology of Amnesty International’s updated report of universal jurisdiction, which finds the vast majority of nations implement UJ in their legislation. Prof. Goodman argues Amnesty over-counts (see Kevin Jon Heller’s dissent).

Yet even if Amnesty’s numbers are accurate, they may actually paint a dismal picture of UJ.

The broader question is whether legislation is what we should be counting, rather than cases. As for the actual exercise of UJ, a comprehensive study by Maximo Langer has found only 32 such cases have gone to trial since World War II. Three-quarters of these involved defendants from three particular conflicts that had been made the subject of extraordinary international tribunals (Rwandas, Yugoslavia, Germany).

I discuss trends in UJ in Kiobel Surprise: Unexpected by Scholars but Consistent with International Trends, forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review. State practice has been moving away from exercising UJ, and Kiobel is the latest example. As I write:

As a proportion of cases that qualify for UJ prosecution, the enforcement rate approaches zero. Of course, a major practical limitation for criminal UJ is obtaining custody over the world’s war criminals and genocidaires… Even given this limitation, the exercise of UJ is extremely rare. For example, in Britain the Home Office is aware of nearly 700-800 suspected war criminals residing in Britain; over 100 applied for asylum in 2012 alone. Yet the government only seeks to return those against whom there is credible information to their home countries. Indeed, while Britain provided a massive publicity boost for universal jurisdiction in the Pinochet case (which itself did not directly raise universality issues), it has only universally prosecuted two defendants – an Afghan paramilitary officer and a Nepalese colonel, both for torture. Both defendants resided in Britain, and had committed

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New Paper: “Kiobel Surprise: Unexpected by Scholars But Consistent with International Trends”

My article on Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum is up on SSRN. It is forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review‘s Federal Courts Issue.

Here is the abstract; comments on the article are welcome:

The unanimous ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum blind-sided the legal academy. The case involved one of the most contentious and dynamic aspects of U.S. foreign relations law, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). Yet the Court surprised observers by deciding the case on grounds almost entirely ignored by the academy – the presumption against extraterritoriality.

Amazingly, despite an extensive academic literature on the ATS, the winning issue in Kiobel had never been examined in a law review until a 2003 student note. No court ruled on it until 2010. Indeed, the issue had not even been part of the litigation in Kiobel until the Court sua sponte raised it during oral argument. Finally, the Court’s unanimous endorsement of an extraterritoriality limitation came as yet another surprise to most observers, who predicted a split along more ideological lines.

The story of the extraterritoriality issue in ATS litigation is a case study in the path dependence of legal doctrine and of agenda-setting by the Supreme Court and the Justice Department. This Article examines the intellectual history of extraterritoriality arguments in ATS litigation, while placing Kiobel in a broader context of international trends in universal jurisdiction. The Article also considers possible reasons for this academic oversight. While normative approval of ATS litigation no doubted contributed to the neglect of the issue in the exciting early years of ATS litigation, its longstanding omission must also be attributed to broader intellectual factors. It demonstrates the power of sub silentio decisions: while courts had never dealt with presumption in ATS cases, most observers assumed the issue to have been

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France’s Kiobel

I wrote yesterday about the French Court of Appeals decision holding that French train companies did not violate international law (and particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention) by building a light rail system in Jerusalem, including areas occupied by Jordan before 1967.

The case, PLO v. Alstom, is a perfect foreign coda to the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel, as it also deals with suits for extraterritorial conduct of multinational corporations (though without the universal jurisdiction twist of Kiobel). It illustrates how the efforts of some American courts to implement international law norms through civil damages remedies is in fact a rather parochial exercise detached from international practice.

1) Most significantly, the Court found that international law does not create liability for corporations. This accords with the view of the Second Circuit in Kiobel – corporate liability was the issue on which cert in Kiobel had been granted, though the case was ultimately decided on extraterritorially grounds. Many who favored corporate liability argued that on this issue, courts should apply not international law, but rather federal common law. In future ATS litigation against companies with some U.S. nexus, the PLO v. Alstom decision will not make plaintiffs’ work easier.

2) The Versailles court also seemed to take a narrow view of aiding-and-abetting liability. The issue is hard to separate from the corporate liability issue, but the Court basically found that even if Israel’s conduct violated international law, the corporation does not incur liability for its involvement.

3) Ironically, the best examples of corporate liability under international law came from ATS cases (where courts had upheld such liability after having been assured of its existence outside ATS cases). Yet the French court brushed off precedents under the ATS by noting that they were merely applications of a “domestic statute” and [...]

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Kiobel and Academic Fallability

Alongside the Health Care Act decision, Kiobel is an example of the professoriate failing to predict the issues that would be taken seriously by the Court both on substance and style. When the Second and Ninth Circuit began questioning “foreign cubed” suits a few years ago, the great majority of scholars dismissed such claims as entirely spurious. The conventional wisdom was very much on the side of universal jurisdiction over corporate human rights abuses. Indeed, such cases had been around for a few decades without much controversy over the universal jurisdiction aspect per se.

Most surprising about Kiobel is the Court’s unanimity. Everyone, including myself, predicted a decision closely divided on ideological lines. Yet ll nine justices seem entirely on board with ending multinational corporate suits. (While Justice Breyer’s concurrence would leave room for Filartiga-style suits where the defendant resides in the U.S., such cases against individuals have largely fallen out of favor with plaintiffs’ lawyers.) The misapprehension of the vote of course relates back to the merits. Many scholars thought the foreign cubed issue a conservative invention to roll back human rights litigation. That position is now hard to maintain. [...]

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What the Definition of Piracy Means for UNCLOS & ATS

Judge Kozinski has gotten considerable criticism from liberals for ruling that Sea Shepherd is involved in piracy under international law. A subsequent post will provide additional support for the decision on the merits. Here, I’d like to look at the big picture and suggest that liberals should be thanking Kozinski: a contrary ruling would have torpedoed two liberal causes – the U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, and a broad construction of the Alien Tort Statute.

A ruling that politically motivated attacks are exempt from piracy would certainly add weight to conservative skepticism of the Law of the Sea Treaty. The root of this skepticism is a concern that the meaning of international legal instruments is actually quite uncertain, and unforeseen vagaries will later be used against the U.S., which will have no monopoly on interpreting the law that applies to it. The retort is that such fears are paranoid; the treaty is clear, by now well-worn, and pretty harmless.

Well if the piracy provisions – which have not been the ones causing conservative anxiety – are actually highly disputed in their meaning on basic definitional points, there may be more to worry about than previously thought. Lets say the meaning of “private ends” is in fact undefined, with both interpretations open. The U.S.’s ability to treat maritime terrorists as international pirates will thus probably depend on what a bunch of professors and European foreign ministry lawyers say “private ends” means.

Again, if this is true of piracy – which has been in the Treaty for sixty years, and in international law for hundreds, imagine what other unplumbed surprises lay in the UNCLOS’s depths. Why by a pig in a poke? One cam imagine the fun at Senate hearings on UNCLOS after terrorists are ruled immune from [...]

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Yes, Sea Shepherd Engages in Piracy Under International Law

The Ninth Circuit was right to reverse the district court in the Sea Shepherd Case. The district court erroneously read “private ends” as excluding political ends like saving the whales. But the “private ends” requirement has never been understood to inject a subjective element to the piracy inquiry. It does not turn on whether the actor’s motives are pecuniary, political, operating under mistake of fact, or simply insane. Private ends are those ends held by private parties. The converse is also true: a government-owned ship in government service cannot commit piracy even if it attacks another vessel solely to enrich itself.

The rule is clear as both a matter of customary international law and the Law of the Sea Convention. On the latter score, the “private” ends requirement of the UNCLOS Art. 101 (which defines piracy) has to be read in conjunction with Art. 102, which distinguishes between “warship” or “government ship” – which cannot commit piracy while under governmental control and “private” ships, which are the kind that can be pirates. Thus “private” clearly means “non-governmental,” rather than selfish or not selfish.

The strongest refutation of the district court’s reasoning are opinions finding that attacks by rebel or guerilla groups that had not become recognized belligerents (i.e., de facto state actors) constitute mere piracy. See The Ambrose Light, 25 F. 408
(D.C. N.Y. 1885). Indeed, Confederate privateers would have been treated as pirates had it not been for a political (i.e., executive) decision not to do so. Obviously no such decision has been made in favor of Sea Shepard, which is essentially waging “private war” – or rather, “private Whale Wars.”

Indeed, Judge Story in The Marianna Flora (1822) made it clear there not be any intent for pecuniary gain:

[N]or do I conceive that it is indispensable

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The Sea Shepherd Decision: Sailing Ahead of Kiobel

The Ninth Circuit’s reversal of a district court decision ruling that actions by Sea Shepherd against Japanese whaling vessels could not constitute piracy because they did not satisfy the “private ends” requirement is obviously correct. (Institute of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepard Conservation Society.) The district court’s analysis always struck me as strange and disconnected with piracy practice and caselaw. In this post, I’ll discuss the relevance of the decision to Alien Tort Statute issues, and in a subsequent one, I’ll examine the merits.

The Japanese whalers brought suit under the ATS, and the case is notable in two other ways relevant to the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Kiobel. First, it shows that the ATS can have both liberal and conservative uses, as I’ve noted before. It is true that there have been few conservative uses, but there weren’t any uses of any kind for 200 years, until Filartiga inspired a wave of human rights litigation. Thus a ruling narrowing the ATS in Kiobel cannot be simply interpreted as “conservative” decision.

Second, it shows that even the narrowest possible ruling in Kiobel – finding the statute to not apply on foreign territory or create corporate liability – cannot be said to close the door to all ATS litigation, or read the statute so narrowly as to make it a dead letter. This case, for example, would clearly survive the narrowest possible post-Sosa view of the ATS.

I am less sure that the ATS applies to piracy at all, though the Ninth Circuit was safe to assume this, as it was assumed by both parties and the Supreme Court in Sosa. I have criticized that that assumption:

It is not clear that Sosa was right about Congress’s belief that the ATS would be a vehicle for piracy suits. Although

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Whale Wars Update: Ninth Circuit Calls Sea Shepherd Actions “Piracy”

Here is the opening of Judge Kozinski’s opinion, reversing a lower court ruling and issuing a preliminary injunction in an Alien Tort Statute suit against the Sea Shepherd’s attempts to interfere with Japanese whaling vessels on the high seas:

You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.

Is this right? Paging our very own Eugene Kontorovich, a leading authority on piracy law!  Over at Opinio Juris, Julian Ku and Kevin Jon Heller discuss the opinion.  Myself, I plan to re-watch South Park. [...]

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Foreign Commerce Authority for Universal Jurisdiction over Terrorists

The government is prosecuting three foreigners for the participating in “combat operations” in a foreign civil war.

The indictment apparently alleges no connection to America, or even foreign commerce (unlike a similar 2011 case that lacked an apparent connection to the U.S.) The defendants are Somalis who fought in Somalia. In a previous post, I discussed why the prosecution exceeds’s Congress’s Define & Punish powers; here we’ll consider other possible Art. I grounds. Today – the Foreign Commerce Clause; later today, War and Treaties. Tomorrow: additional thoughts about American exceptionalism in universal jurisdiction.

Foreign Commerce Clause
My previous post focussed on the Define & Punish Clause as the basis for the MST law; today, we will examine some other suggestions. I addressed the Define & Punish clause first because it is the first Art. I power Congress cited in its “findings” in support of the section. (sec. 301(a)(2) of the public law). Later, the findings do suggest the Commerce powers as a tertiary rationale: terrorism discourages travel from the U.S. to affected country, and vice versa. It also mentions general harm to “market stability.” This sounds a lot like the arguments rejected by the Supreme Court in U.S. v Morrison . Surely Congress’s can’t regulate any crime anywhere in the world just because it upsets things. The commerce argument is even weaker here: if someone moves out of their state because of violence against women, they presumably move to another U.S. state. But if they move from Somalia, they do not presumably move to the U.S.

The connection to U.S. commerce would have to be shown. In the one prior universal jurisdiction “material support” case, Ahmed , the government claimed in the indictment, without providing specifics, that it could show real links to commerce. The district judge accepted [...]

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The Offenses Clause & Universal Jurisdiction Over Terrorists

A few days before Christmas, the U.S. indicted three men at the Federal District courthouse in Brooklyn for plotting suicide bomb attacks. This is an extraordinary, almost unique case: none of the people or conduct has any connection to the U.S. The defendants are foreign nationals, captured by some African government ont their way to join up with al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist group. To be clear, there is no suggestion that they planned to target American nationals or facilities, or had even ever been to this country before.

This is an aggressive – and unconstitutional – assertion of universal jurisdiction. The U.S. is prosecuting foreign nationals for their participation in a foreign civil war. Congress, as the Supreme Court recently reminded us in the Health Care decision, is truly one of limited regulatory powers, and thus the first question about such a case is what Art. I power gives Congress the power to punish entirely foreign conduct with no U.S. nexus.

The men have been charged under the “material support for terrorism” statute, 18 USC 2339B . Apart from the many controversies about the substantive sweep of the law, it casts a very broad jurisdictional net. By its terms, it applies to foreigners who support designated foreign terror groups with no connection to the U.S. In other words, it makes terrorism anywhere a federal offense.

While the statute has previously been used to prosecute extraterritorial conduct by foreigners that conducted significant dealings in the U.S., this is only the second apparently “universal” prosecution.

The Art I. authority for prosecuting conduct under universal jurisdiction is the “Define and Punish” clause. Yet the clause limits universal jurisdiction to crimes, like piracy, that are i) “offenses against the law of nations,” and ii) treated as universally cognizable by the law [...]

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Evolving International Law and Defining Offenses

The Fourth Circuit’s noteworthy decision in U.S. v. Dire is probably the first court of appeals decision in a piracy prosecution in nearly 200 years. The Fourth Circuit decision is important not only for some novel pending piracy cases, but for the Alien Tort Statute and broader questions about the interplay of U.S. and international law.

Two groups of defendants were tried by different federal district judges for attempted piracy – they had been caught before boarding the targeted vessel (which was unfortunately for the defendants, a U.S. warship). They were charged under 18 U.S.C § 1651 with “piracy as defined by the law of nations.” Both cases turned on whether that “definition” extends to attempts. One district court said yes, in the Dire case. Another district judge, in Said, said no. He looked the important 1820 piracy case of U.S. v. Smith, where the Supreme Court discussed the definition of piracy, and said everyone agreed it was “robbery on the high seas.” Since there was no robbery here – no piracy.

The Fourth Circuit yesterday reversed the dismissal. It held that the statute refers to “the law of nations” and that is understood to change over time, and the definition of piracy with it. We are not stuck with the 1820 definition of Smith; we look to the definition today. I don’t think the Court had to get into to this evolving-international law inquiry; Said was simply wrong to read Smith’s definition as excluding attempts. Some other noteworthy features:

The Define and Punish Clause. The Fourth Circuit endorsed my position, which had been very generously expounded by the district court, that the Constitution’s Define and Punish Clause only allows for universal jurisdiction over crimes that clearly have that status in international law. Slip Op. at 15-16. The court [...]

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The Cross-Cutting Politics of the ATS and Universal Jurisdiction

In discussions of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell and the Alien Tort Statute, many commentators suggested if the Supreme Court limits corporate liability or extraterritoriality under the ATS, it would eviscerate the statute, and be bad for human rights. More generally, limiting the ATS is thought to serve broadly conservative interests.

These points are only weakly true for the ATS, as I’ll explain below. But more broadly, a limited understanding of the role of universal jurisdiction (UJ) and the Constitution’s Offenses power would have a variety of cross-cutting political valences when applied to other statutes. I have been describing the sources and scope of the constitutional limits on UJ in prior posts. So if reigning in foreign-cubed suits under the ATS can be “scored” as a liberal loss, the logic for doing so would give conservatives a loss under the material support for terrorism law, and both a conservative and liberals loss under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (but a libertarian win!).

To put it differently, UJ – the exercise of judicial power in foreign-cubed suits – has no inherent political valence; this depends on the norms being universalized. The ATS is one of a few instances of such jurisdiction, and a restriction on it could have several ripples and ramifications in other important contexts.

Moreover, it should be remembered that the ATS itself has other uses besides foreign-cubed suits against companies. Restricting such actions does not make the ATS meaningless, it only stops one particular genre of claims. ATS suits can and have been brought against individual American nationals, even as the new briefs in Kiobel are being written. Also, it should be noted that the ATS suits are not limited to liberal causes, and limiting it could obstruct some more conservative initiatives. Consider two pending ATS [...]

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Can Congress Mandate the Japanese to Buy Detroit Cars? – The Commerce Clause and Foreign Commerce

One aspect of the ACA litigation that has not received due attention is the effect of the Court’s ruling on the scope Foreign Commerce Clause. An expansive, limitless definition of the scope of “Commerce” would presumably apply to Foreign Commerce as well. If there is no limiting principle for the former, it would be hard to have a limiting principle for the latter.

Under the logic of the government’s approach, Congress could regulate or mandate transactions purely between foreigners with no direct U.S. nexus. This is because these foreigners could have – should have! – engaged in transactions with the U.S instead. Purely foreign transactions affect the price of things in the U.S. If insurance would be cheaper if more people bought it, the same could be said about American cars. It makes no difference if the recalcitrant non-purchaser is foreign or domestic. Can the Japanese be required to buy U.S. cars? Certainly such a law would be closely related a major economic sector, as defenders of the ACA like to put it. (I am of course holding aside issues of enforceability to focus on the Commerce power.)

Or consider a rationale closer to the ACA case. If the mandate falls within Interstate Commerce, why not Foreign Commerce as well? Just as health people may get sick while uninsured, foreigners might come to the U.S. uninsured. At the time they come, no doubt Congress could require purchasing insurance as part of its Immigration powers. But by then it could be too late, they could be sick not insurable. So could Congress require foreigners to buy insurance or broccoli prior to coming to America on the theory that they might at some point come to America? Foreigners from countries where a sizable percentage visit the U.S.? Foreigners who have visited the [...]

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Precedent-setting Dutch Civil Universal Juris. Case

One of the peculiarities of the Alien Tort Statute is its mix of cosmopolitan conceptions of justice with American exceptionalism. Under the ATS the U.S. has been the only nation in the world allowing for universal jurisdiction (“UJ”) in civil suits. So while enforcing international law has been the justification for these suits, it has been a mode of enforcement otherwise unseen around the world.

That changed a tiny bit today with a precedent-setting decision in the Netherlands, that awarded damages in a UJ civil suit brought by a Palestinian man against Libyan officials for torture that took place in Libya – the notorious and bizarre fraudulent persecution of foreign medical workers for infecting patients with AIDs. (And this is when Qaddafi could still be seen in polite company.)

So what does this ruling mean for the ATS, and particularly the extraterritoriality issue to be argued in Kiobel? At first, it would seem to bolster the plaintiff’s case, by making civil UJ seem (very marginally) less anomalous. But it also cuts the other way, perhaps more strongly. The argument that there is no other forum where these serious wrongs can be redressed has underpinned broad notions of the ATS, both with regards to UJ extraterritoriality and corporate liability. Now, the danger of “impunity” has abated. Now a federal judge must now ask in a UJ ATS case – why wasn’t it brought in Holland? What if Holland is actually physically closer to the conduct (as in Kiobel)? Isn’t Holland where all the international lawyers are? Does plaintiff’s presumptive choice of forum apply to UJ cases?

Finally, the Libyan defendants were all sued as individuals (because of sovereign immunity), suggesting an absence of entity liability (like corporate liability) does not make a nullity of international justice and human rights litigation.

UPDATE: [...]

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Kiobel (III): Universality as a Constitutional Question

Lets take a break from the ACA to think about the federal government’s power to to deal with matters that have no connection to the U.S., an issue the Court will take up when it hears the expanded arguments in Kiobel, the ATS case.

Yesterday I talked about how the ATS extraterritoriality at issue in Kiobel is really something rarer and more extreme: universality. Thus the analysis starts with the classic universal crime and obscure constitutional provision – Piracy, which has gotten significant play in the courts of appeals’ extraterritoriality cases like Doe v. Exxon and Rio Tinto (as well as in the Kiobel oral arguments on corporate liability). Because Sosa held that piracy would be actionable under the ATS, it is clear that the battle over extraterritoriality in Kiobel will be a naval engagement. It is true that piracy occurs extraterritorially, and under the current piracy statute, can be prosecuted even with no connection to the U.S. But proponents of foreign-cubed draw precisely the wrong inferences from piracy’s exceptional status.

Piracy is not just any international crime: it has its own separate constitutional provision: Congress can punish “piracies and felonies on the high seas, and Offenses against the law of nations.” Thus whatever is true of “piracy” is not necessarily true of other “Offenses” that can be reached under the ATS: these are separate, though related, Art. I powers. The Constitution’s singling out of piracy is striking and demands explanation, because it creates a double-redundancy. Does anything make piracy different from other high seas felonies and international law offenses? Yes: it was the only universally cognizable offense at the time.

Starting with this textual observation, I have explained that Congress can at most only use universal jurisdiction over offenses that clearly have that status in international law (see The [...]

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