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2003-09-04

Under Pressure from Corporations, Ashcroft Threatens to Overturn a 200 Year-Old Law Used to Fight Human Rights Abusers and War Criminals

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We host a debate between Daniel Griswold of the Center for Trade Policy Studies and international human rights lawyer Michael Ratner. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript Earlier this year the Justice Department launched an effort to overturn the 200-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act.

The Justice Department claims the Act was never meant to target U.S. corporations for their trade practices overseas. Advocates of free trade argue the Act threatens U.S. economic and security interests. Meanwhile human rights advocates view the act as one of the most effective tools to target human rights abusers and war criminals.

TRANSCRIPT

Amy Goodman: We’re going to turn now to focus on the "Alien Tort Claims Act" which was used in the case that Joshua just described and has been used in the case of many others. Earlier this year the Justice Department launched an effort to overturn the two-hundred-year-old act. The Justice Department claims the act was never meant to target the US corporations for their trade practices overseas. Advocates of free trade argue that the act threatens US economic and security interests, meanwhile human rights activists view the act as one of the most effective tools to target human rights abusers and war criminals.

Juan Gonzalez: We’re joined first by Michael Ratner who’s been a guest with us several times before from the Center for Constitutional Rights. Michael, could you explain in brief how the Alien Tort Act works?

Michael Ratner: Well, it allows aliens to sue either corporations or individuals who have engaged in acts like torture, summary execution, and forced labor. It’s been really effective in the last twenty years in for bringing to justice people like Marcos and getting money from his estate, Gramajo a general in Guatemala who committed human rights violations and where we’ve really run into trouble with the government in the last five years has to do with suing major corporations and oil companies in particular — Unical, Shell, Chevron -and now that we’re suing businesses and there’s some deep pockets there for engaging in acts like or aiding and abetting torture, et cetera, there becomes a huge issue now because those corporations don’t like that.

Goodman: Now John Ashcroft the Attorney General is trying to get rid of the Alien Tort Claims Act. Also on the line with us is Daniel Griswald associate director at the Center for Trade Studies at the Cato Institute. When we hear about the gross atrocities that we just heard laid out, for example the piece in the Washington Post was "A Tortured Path to Justice" about Juan Ramagoza, the doctor who went after his torturers in Florida. You have advocated getting rid of the Alien Tort Claims Act. What recourse, then, would he have?

Daniel Griswold: Well, first I think there are ways of going after people like that, we should go after them. The Alien Claims Tort act is not the way to go and it’s not quite accurate to say we want to get rid of it, actually we want to restore the act to its original interpretation that survived for almost two centuries — after all it’s only been since 1980 that this one-line law, passed in 1789 has been abused in this way, and it’s being used in a way that was never intended. It was intended to settle a jurisdictional dispute. Is it up to the state courts to settle these sorts of matters or is it up to the Federal courts? This law says it is up to the federal courts and it was intended to settle matters of piracy and criminal acts involving diplomats, it was never intended to be this sort of broad, catch-all civil claims against any abuses. Basically it’s being used against foreigners committing atrocities against foreigners on foreign soil. And frankly a lot of people in the rest of the world resent the long arm of the United States trying to intrude on their sovereignty, including the Government of South Africa. President Umbeke has stated publicly that he feels that the way that this law is being abused is a threat to their sovereignty and is interfering with their ability to the truth and reconciliation process that’s justice.

Gonzalez: Daniel Griswald doesn’t the United States government use the same viewpoint in terms of acts of terrorism committed against the United States anywhere in the world? Can be tried in an America court?

Griswold: I think if they’re acts against Americans we’ll take action. But the bottom line is — I agree that these people should be brought to justice — this is not the way to do it. It is abusing this process, it is alienating our friends and allies around the world at a time when we’re trying to conduct a war against terrorism. It is against the interests of poor people this is putting a chill on foreign direct investment in poor countries which is going to make it more difficult for millions of poor people to climb out of poverty this is an abuse of an obsolete law.

Ratner: I just want to say something: let’s look at what’s really going on here. We have a corporation like Unocal, which is headquartered in California — this is not some foreign corporation — cooperating with the Burma government, basically in building a pipeline and the allegations are that they use slave labor, there was rapes there were summary executions and there was torture that’s not some exotic case that’s a homegrown American corporation and it does seem to me that when a home grown American corporation is involved in that kind of conduct overseas that an American court has every right to say and slap that corporation’s hands and say "you can’t engage in torture overseas, you can’t kill people like that it seems obvious to me it’s been upheld by not only many, many courts of appeals, the carter administration, the Clinton administration all said this is a law that is very important that US foreign policy should not be inconsistent with the idea that corporations and others engage in torture overseas and we should be able to sue them for that. What’s going on here? We’re only running into flak now that we’re running into some deep pocket, big oil companies who have the money to try and lobby against this thing.

Griswold: It’s a matter of accountability. It should be up to congress and the administration to determine these laws — not the courts.

Ratner: Well congress did determine that — Congress actually passed the torture victim protection act which allows American citizens to do what aliens do and actually what’s happened because of that is essentially to reaffirm the interpretation of the Alien Tort Claims Act in Florida, so congress has affirmed it, presidents have affirmed it, and the courts have affirmed it. Now that we have the Bush administration in there and a bunch of corporations who are getting nervous about the fact that they are getting very bad practices overseas such as torture, now we’re getting a big stink about the law.

Griswold: The law was never intended to apply in these cases. It is being used in a "broad-brush" way that is interfering in legitimate US foreign policy interests. Basically we’re sacrificing the interests of the United States, both its economy our foreign policy interests at a particularly dangerous time with the war on terrorism going on…

Goodman: Daniel Griswald, what about that point raised about Unical, for example? And it’s gross human rights violations in Burma?

Griswold: Well, again, I think that should be a matter of Congressional action, it should be up to Congress and the President to determine the foreign policy of this country, not up to particular courts, up to particular judges using an obscure law that for almost two hundred years was never envisioned as applying in these sorts of cases. Basically what we have is a legal system run amok.

Ratner: Hardly that. There hasn’t yet been any judgment against a corporation that we’ve gotten any money for. So it’s not like it’s run amok. And there’s a number of corporations that have been targeted because of those kinds of practices. When corporations engage in torture or aid and abet in torture or forced labor or summary execution, I think courts have a real role in that in this world.

Goodman: We only have 30 seconds left I wanted to ask Michael Ratner one question on another issue and that is that this week the Supreme Court, you and other attorneys asked whether the Bush administration has violated the Constitution by holding 660 suspects in Cuba, in Guantanamo Bay without charges or access to attorneys. You brought it to the Supreme Court, what’s…

Ratner: Well we went to the Supreme Court after basically losing this case in front of the district court and the court of appeals on the grounds that no US court, in fact no court in the world, they said, has any jurisdiction over what we’re doing to the people in Guantanamo. We’ve asked the Supreme Court to take it it’s called an Application for Writ of Sertiority and it is dependant on what they do in their discretion. We’ve hope they take the case, obviously that it can mean that you can have executive detentions of hundreds of people outside a judicial system is anathema to any, everything this country should stand for.

Goodman: Well, on that note I want to thank you, Michael Ratner, from the center for Constitutional Rights, and Daniel Griswold from the Cato Institute for joining us. That does it for the program.


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