Features

Suing tyranny?

"Suing tyranny?" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Liberation Day 2004," April 10, 2004

Mr. Copland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute, says the current rash of ATCA lawsuits is politically similar to the suits against tobacco companies, gun manufacturers, and fast-food chains. "Activists are not realizing their goals through the political process, so they're going to the courts. They're circumventing the democratic process.... There's a fee-driven component, of course, but there's also a feeling of 'I want to be the secretary of state' among these lawyers."

The real secretary of state, of course, has to worry about international protocol and the concerns of sovereign nations -- details that lawyers and judges have little time for. Administration officials fear that setting up U.S. courts as the international arbiter of human rights merely invites reprisals from countries with different views of what constitutes right and wrong. Already several Afghan prisoners of war are suing under ATCA, but if American judges turn down their claims, they could simply shop around for an international court that's friendlier to their cause. Likewise, Saddam Hussein might sue for damages in, say, France, arguing that he is the victim of an unlawful invasion.

The specter of foreign courts interfering in U.S. foreign policy led the Bush Justice Department to ask the Supreme Court to sharply limit the application of ATCA. As the law is currently interpreted, ATCA "threatens the United States' ability to conduct law enforcement operations abroad to combat terrorism and international crime," Solicitor General Theodore Olsen wrote in his friend-of-the-court brief.

Despite all the problems with the ATCA statute, some religious conservatives have mixed feelings about seeing it overturned. It was an ATCA lawsuit, after all, that helped put Sudan's persecution of its Christian minority in the international spotlight. The case, Presbyterian Church of Sudan vs. Talisman Energy, pits Sudanese Christians against Canada's largest private energy company. The Christians charge that Talisman built roads and an airport used by the Sudanese army in its brutal crackdown against non-Muslims in the south, in addition to providing vehicles and fuel to the army.

After years of fighting the charges in court, Talisman finally withdrew from Sudan, dealing a big financial blow to the radical Islamic government in the north. That didn't end the oil company's troubles, however. A federal court ruled in late March that the Christians' lawsuit against the company should go forward, and damages could total millions of dollars.

-- with reporting from Priya Abraham

in Washington

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