The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) (28 U.S.C. §1350)
provides that the "district courts shall have original jurisdiction
of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of
the law of nations or of a treaty of the United States."
This law was almost never
used between the time it was enacted in 1789, and the 1980s.
Filartiga was a Paraguayan
dissident. His son was tortured and murdered by a Paraguayan official
named Pena-Irala in Paraguay.
It was a
Filartigia tried to get
justice in Paraguay, but was unsuccessful.
Pena-Irala happened to come to
the US on a vacation, and was sued by Filartiga (who was living in the US)
under the ATS.
The Trial Court dismissed the
claim. Filartiga appealed.
The Trial Court found that
the "law of nations" as used in the ATS does not govern a State's treatment of its
Basically, the Court was
saying that they didn't have jurisdiction over what Paraguayan officials
did to Paraguayan citizens on Paraguayan soil.
The Appellate Court reversed.
The Appellate Court looked
to The Paquette Habana (175 U.S.
677 (1900)), and found that "the law of nations" should be
interpreted as customary international law.
The Court found that under customary
international law, there is a set of
"human rights and fundamental freedoms."
The Court noted that the
extent of those rights and freedoms is debatable, but surely includes
the right not to be tortured and killed.
Therefore, official torture
is prohibited by the law of nations.
The Court found that
Filartigia had a claim under the ATS
since Pena-Iralia was accused of violating the law of nations.