The Economist: Test Case–How far can America’s legal system be applied to foreign human-rights cases?
Posted by sarahjinn on October 30, 2008
Under a grey sky on October 27th, Larry Bowoto provided an improbable splash of colour in his Nigerian agbada gown before the federal courthouse in San Francisco. He is the lead plaintiff in a case against Chevron, an oil giant based in California, over something that happened in May 1998 on a platform operated by Chevron’s Nigerian subsidiary, nine miles off the Niger Delta.
Bowoto v Chevron is likely to test how the American legal system can be applied to human rights in other countries. The civil suit is being brought under the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act, one of America’s oldest laws (it was signed by George Washington). The act allows foreigners to bring civil cases before American courts arising from violations of law or treaty anywhere in the world. It was invoked just twice before 1980, when it was used by a victim of state repression in Paraguay. Since then the act has been invoked in around 100 cases. In 1993 a case against Radovan Karadzic for crimes against humanity in Bosnia broadened its applicability to non-state actors. In 1996 a group of Burmese villagers brought a suit against Unocal, another oil company (subsequently bought by Chevron), over the use of forced labour by Burmese soldiers guarding the route of a gas pipeline. The case was settled in 2004. Go to Article