Friday, May 30, 2003
The current suit cites one of America’s oldest laws, the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Passed by the first Congress in 1789, it holds that foreign citizens can bring suits in the United States for abuses "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The law was designed to prevent the U.S. from becoming a safe haven for pirates.
Which brings us to Ashcroft. In his brief, he argued that ATCA should not be used in civil cases, and that the "law of nations" outlined in the act should not be interpreted to include human-rights treaties. Ashcroft didn’t file a brief specifically in defense of Unocal; he filed a brief against the very idea that foreigners should be allowed to apply to U.S. courts for redress when international laws are violated. Moreover, he wrote, such litigation "bears serious implications for our current war against terrorism, and permits [ATCA] claims to be easily asserted against our allies in that war."
So a kid from a Buffalo ghetto travels to Afghanistan, visits a terrorist training camp and comes home. Before he commits any crime, he goes to jail for 10 years. Even the government admits there was no overt violent crime here: "Material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization" was stretched to include the purchase of a uniform at the camp. But if an American company goes overseas and for six years invests millions of dollars and uses slave labor and torture to build some miserable gas pipeline–committing not one crime, but many hideous violent crimes, at a systemic level–it shouldn’t even be sued, according to our attorney general.
Just this week, a seventh Lackawanna suspect, Jaber Elbaneh, was indicted by the Justice Department. He’s overseas somewhere. There would have been an eighth named Kamal Derwish, but he was killed last year in a CIA missile attack in Yemen. In Iraq and everywhere else, the whole world has been informed that it is subject to U.S. law. With a few exceptions.
No one has ever argued that US corporations are not bound by US law when operating overseas - until Ashcroft.