Statute a Recourse for the Oppressed: Supreme Court Can Defend Human Rights by Upholding 1789 Law

By Privett, Stephen A. | National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Statute a Recourse for the Oppressed: Supreme Court Can Defend Human Rights by Upholding 1789 Law


Privett, Stephen A., National Catholic Reporter


On Oct. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case regarding an American law that allows foreign plaintiffs to have claims for human rights abuses heard in U.S. courts. This law has been shown to be important for the protection of members of religious groups, including Catholics, throughout the world. It is my hope that the court, especially its six Catholic members, will uphold this law.

The law that is in dispute, the Alien Tort Statute, has been used to protect survivors of human rights abuses, including many religious groups. The statute was created in 1789 and allows foreign plaintiffs to sue in U.S. courts for the worst-of-the-worst international crimes such as slavery, torture and genocide. It has been used against both individual defendants and corporations that have committed atrocities overseas. The statute has allowed survivors and victims to pursue justice in the United States--for example, the family of assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Muslims who were persecuted in Bosnia, and Christians who were subjected to torture and genocide in Sudan.

The Supreme Court has heard arguments about the Alien Tort Statute in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell). In this case, a group of Nigerian plaintiffs in the United States sued Shell oil for allegedly hiring the notorious Nigerian military to rape, torture and murder activists who opposed oil drilling in the Niger Delta. Shell claimed that it could not be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute because it is a corporation and the alleged conduct took place overseas against foreigners.

If corporations are "persons" for purposes of political contributions, why not for human rights abuses?

All persons and communities of faith should be concerned about this case for several reasons. First, the statute has been used to protect victims of religious persecution. Second, faith-based organizations work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world and are particularly vulnerable to human rights crimes. Third, as Christians, we have a preferential commitment to protecting the most vulnerable among us. A law that holds extreme human rights abusers accountable for their actions merits our support.

As a priest and a person of faith, I support the Alien Tort Statute. For me, a telling example occurred when the statute finally saw justice done in the case of Romero, in what is truly an astonishing story.

Romero's episcopal ministry was dedicated to being "the voice of the voiceless" for the Salvadoran poor, which often meant that he was at odds with the repressive, military-dominated, extreme rightist government that was then in power. As a result, he became a target of the high command. In his last national weekly radio sermon he courageously addressed the Salvadoran military, "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression."

The very next day, while he celebrated Mass, he was assassinated by a paramilitary death-squad member. …

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