U.S. Courts Tackle Foreign Abuses / Energy corporations question 'law of nations'

 
A 215-year-old law originally written to address piracy and crimes abroad against American ambassadors is at the heart of litigation targeting some of the world's largest energy corporations.

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A 215-year-old law originally written to address piracy and crimes abroad against American ambassadors is at the heart of litigation targeting some of the world's largest energy corporations.

Plaintiffs allege that ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Unocal and Royal Dutch/Shell are responsible for atrocities committed by foreign troops guarding their refineries and facilities overseas.

The corporations say that the lawsuits are without merit, and that such human rights problems are the domain of U.S. foreign policy, not domestic courts.

But a recent Supreme Court ruling may have left the door open for the suits to proceed.

Anticipated ruling
The cases were filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, a law giving federal courts jurisdiction over international civil suits brought for violations of "the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

Since 1980, the statute has been used successfully to bring huge -- if uncollected -- judgments against figures such as former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

It survived a major test when, on June 29, the Supreme Court handed down a long-anticipated ruling on Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain.

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