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November 04, 2005

Human Rights First Welcomes Senator's About Face on Bill Limiting Human Rights Accountability

More on International Justice
Human Rights First welcomes the decision of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) not to move forward with legislation she introduced last month to limit the use of an important human rights statute.

On October 17, Senator Feinstein introduced S. 1874, the Alien Tort Statute Reform Act, to amend the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). Over the past 25 years this law, part of the original Judiciary Act of 1789, has enabled victims of torture and other terrible human rights abuses to seek relief in U.S. courts and hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. Beginning with the Filartiga decision in 1980, U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld use of the ATCA as a civil remedy for internationally-recognized human rights violations. For more background on the statute and its use, click here.

The Feinstein bill would have made it nearly impossible to seek relief under the ATCA – whether against foreign government officials or corporations. While the Senator’s statement on the Senate floor suggested that it was intended as a carefully-focused effort to “clarify” the law, in reality it would have eviscerated the statute and expanded impunity for gross human rights violations. For example, the bill would have:

  • Limited the types of abuses for which the law could be used – for example, not authorizing its use for crimes against humanity and forced labor;
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  • Mandated that defendants be “direct participants” – thus eliminating liability for those who commanded lower-level officials or otherwise assisted in the abuses; and
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  • Required a judge to dismiss any case where the President or another senior Executive Branch official informed the court that it would have a negative effect on U.S. foreign policy.

Quick Response and Good Results

Human Rights First responded immediately to the Senator’s legislation, bringing together other interested organizations to discuss strategy and arranging a small meeting with the Senator’s Legislative Director within three days of the bill’s introduction. That meeting enabled us to outline specific objections to the legislation and explain the significant discrepancies between what the Senator described in her floor statement and the bill’s actual language and impact. Human Rights First also mobilized other legal experts to weigh in with the Senator and her staff about the drastic effects of S. 1874.

Within days Senator Feinstein reconsidered her effort, and on October 25 she wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA), a longtime ATCA supporter and primary sponsor of the companion Torture Victim Protection Act, asking him to refrain from any activity on the bill “in light of concerns raised by human rights advocates.” While Senator Feinstein did not formally withdraw the legislation, her action indicates that our rapid response and advocacy had its desired impact.

“We appreciate Senator Feinstein’s willingness to step back so quickly,” said Eric Biel, Human Rights First’s Deputy Washington Director and Senior Counsel. “We laid out clearly the bill’s devastating impact for human rights accountability, and we believe our concerns were heard. We will continue to closely monitor and vigorously oppose any efforts in Congress to restrict use of this key human rights tool,” Biel added.

Senator Feinstein’s Letter to Chairman Specter

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