The Alien Tort Statute of 1789 is no longer available to foreigners to claim for wrongdoings on foreign soil

Author: Riaan Eksteen

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: BA (Hon) MA PhD, Research Associate, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 34 Issue 1, 2023, p. 54 – 75


The Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) of 1789 was part of the first law to be enacted by the First Congress of the USA. Its original purpose was primarily to remedy harms suffered by aliens at the hands of US citizens. For two centuries it remained dormant. Then it became a vehicle to advance human rights.

Sosa v Humberto Alvarez-Machain 542 US 692 (2004) was the first of four ATS cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum Co 569 US 108 (2013) followed and with it, the court limited the application of the ATS. It coined the term “touch and concern” whereby only those with a nexus with the US could pursue grievances. It also enforced the principle of extraterritoriality. Jesner v Arab Bank, PLC 584 US ___ (2018); 138 S Ct 1386 (2018) brought further clarity by imposing clear limits on which parties may be defendants in ATS cases. Nestlé USA, Inc v John Doe I; Cargill, Inc v John Doe I 593 US ___ (2021); 141 S Ct 1931 (2021) precluded future cases of human rights abuses against corporations when allegations can only be made that general corporate decision-making occurred in the US. In future, plaintiffs will have to establish a strong domestic nexus with the US for a claim under the ATS to be successful.

Eventually the statute lost its attractiveness for foreign plaintiffs wanting to settle in US courts human rights scores committed in foreign places. Yet some aggrieved Namibians tried to pursue a case against Germany in an attempt to extricate monetary compensation from the former colonial power as restitutional compensation on the basis of the provisions in the ATS. Their attempts failed. Compensation for German atrocities committed during the colonial era in German South West Africa was pursued by the Namibian government outside of the courts.

This article illustrates that, at the hand of decisions by the highest court in the US involving particular groups of foreigners, legal avenues using the ATS as a basis have now been closed.