Filartiga v. Pena-Irala
630 F.2d 876 (1980)

  • 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 politically-motivated killing.
    • 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 own citizens.
      • 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.