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US Court of Appeals, Filartiga vs Pena-Irala





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In this groundbreaking case a domestic legal instrument, the US Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 (ATCA), provided the means of awarding civil redress to victims of human rights violations that were contrary to customary international law.  The Alien Tort Claims Act provides 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.

This case arose in the context of violent oppression of political opponents during the dictatorship of the Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), rather than in the context of a war.  Americano Pena-Irala was sued for redress for acts of torture committed by him as inspector general in the Department of Investigation for the Police of Asunsion, Paraguay, against a 17-year-old Paraguayan boy who was the son of an outspoken opponent of the Paraguyan government. The plaintiffs, his sister and father, were awarded over $10 million.

The judges asserted that federal jurisdiction over cases involving international law was beyond dispute and predated the case at hand. Thus they construed the Alien Tort Statute, “not as granting new rights to aliens, but simply as opening the federal courts for adjudication of the rights already recognized[emphasis added] by international law”. The case was remarkable for its expansive view of the scope of customary international law and of the potential of domestic laws to work in the service of customary international law: “[F]or purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind. Our holding today, giving effect to a jurisdictional provision enacted by our First Congress, is a small but important step in the fulfillment of the ageless dream to free all people from brutal violence.”

The decision was equivocal as to whether or not a tort must be committed “under color of state authority” in order to trigger the application of international law. Detailed consideration was given to this question in the recent case of KADIC and DOE vs. Karadzic 1995 (see below). While Filartigaturned upon the violation of an internationally recognized human rights norm, its impact has since gone beyond the human rights arena to encompass violations of international humanitarian law (see Kadic below).

Click here to see to other documents related to the Filartiga case including an excellent synopsis.

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