Free Trade and the Alien Tort Statute of 1789

By A. M. Newhall, BASC Research Assistant

On October 21st President Obama signed free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia while ignoring the impact such agreements have had on human rights and the environment in other countries in Latin America. For example, mounting evidence suggests multinational corporations frequently choose profit over social responsibility in developing countries with devastating consequences. Those most negatively impacted are indigenous people residing on or near resource deposits who have little hope for redress of grievance in their local courts. However, an October 25th ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Sarei v. Rio Tinto may help pave the way for successful litigation in U.S. courts by foreign nationals against multinational corporations that violate international humanitarian laws abroad.

Filed in 2000 under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute of 1789 as a class action suit brought by the Nasioi people of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands against British-Australian owned Rio Tinto mining, the plaintiffs seek redress for the environmental devastation of their island by Rio Tinto and the deaths of 10,000 Nasioi by the Papua New Guinea government in collusion with Rio Tinto. The decision by the Ninth Court that Rio Tinto can be held liable for human rights violations under the Alien Tort Statute joins earlier decisions made by the Seventh and Eleventh and D.C. Circuits in Sarei v. Rio Tinto.

The progress of the case is being watched by legal experts such as Paul Hoffman who view the Alien Tort Statute as a possible mechanism for strengthening corporate accountability for violations of human rights and environmental provisions such as those found in U.S. free trade agreements.

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