Klein Frank, P.C. Klein Frank, P.C.

Alien Tort Statute: Victims of Slavery Cannot Sue on American Soil


The Alien Tort Statute (ATS) is a federal law in the United States that was adopted in 1789, which grants the United States district court’s jurisdiction for torts committed against foreigners in violation of the law of nations. This law has expanded throughout the years to include the protection of human rights. This statute gives survivors of human rights abuses, wherever committed, the right to file suit against perpetrators in the United States.

Non-U.S. citizens have the ability to bring a suit under the Alien Tort Statute for a range of violations, including:

  • Torture
  • Forced disappearance
  • Crimes against humanity
  • Genocide
  • Slavery
  • Rape

The statute concerns international law but that does mean it can indicate whether the district courts have jurisdiction over disputes that involve conduct outside of the United States. A federal statute only applies within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, unless indicated otherwise. Whether a claim touches and concerns the territory of the United States could turn on how a court defines “touch” and “concern.”

Limiting the Alien Tort Statute

The Supreme Court started to place outer limits on the Alien Tort Statute’s original limitations beginning with the decision in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain in 2004. The court found that not all violations of international norms are actionable under the statute. Nine years later, another court case arose, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Company, where the Supreme Court continued to further limit the ATS reach by holding that the plaintiffs cannot sue foreign defendants in suits under this statute when relevant conduct occurs overseas. In a third Supreme Court case, Jesner v. Arab Bank, PLC, the court further limited the application of the Alien Tort Statute by holding that foreign corporations cannot be defendants in suits that are brought under the Alien Tort Statute.

ATS & Slavery Accusations in Ivory Coast

In the most recent Supreme Court case,Nestle USA, INC. v DOE et AL., six individuals from Mali alleged they were trafficked into Ivory Coast as child slaves for up to 14 hours [JS1] without pay. The two American-based companies, Nestle USA, Inc., and Cargill, Inc., did not operate or own cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, but they buy cocoa from the farms located along the Ivory Coast. These respondents filed a suit under the Alien Tort Statute, contending that the defendant companies were liable under the ATS for aiding and abetting child slavery in the Ivory Coast.

The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims that alleged the companies were aiding and abetting slave labor under the ATS, finding that the complaint sought an impermissible extraterritorial application of the ATS. To plead facts sufficient to support a domestic application of the Alien Tort Statute, plaintiffs must allege more domestic conduct than general corporate activity. The holding, in this case, states that courts cannot create new causes of action against foreign corporations under the Alien Tort Statute.

Controversy is present on whether the statute is a feasible method to provide redress for human rights abuses and violations. Considerable limitations have been placed on the ability to pursue claims under this statute and the court has never ruled in favor of the plaintiff in an Alien Tort Statute case.