With no redress available in Nigeria, she turned to the American courts. For several decades, the US has offered victims of international human rights abuses access to justice here. A 1789 law that permits foreigners to file suit under the Alien Tort Statute, evolved to enable American jurisdiction over the claims. No other country has offered noncitizens such straightforward access to their courts for the judicial review of actions that took place abroad.
These cases do not burden the American justice system. The statute provides only a narrow basis for jurisdiction and requires plaintiffs to allege a specific wrong that violates an established norm of international law. The claims remain subject to dismissal for reasons that include the case being better suited to the legal system of a different country. To date, only four cases have proceeded to trial, but some have achieved substantial settlements.
The US has adjudicated claims of foreign torture, execution, genocide, and slavery under the Alien Tort Statute. Successful outcomes have included settlements on behalf of Nigerian children killed from drug tests secretly conducted by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer; survivors of the Holocaust for losses to Banque Paribas which appropriated their assets during the German occupation of France; and Chinese dissidents who were detained and tortured after Yahoo! revealed that they were disseminating pro-democracy materials.
In interviews, survivors have stressed the importance of having their suffering recognized in a judicial forum. They believe that the judicial process in America contributes to the strengthening of human rights norms around the world.
The US, however, may soon cede its leadership in human rights as it relates to this law. In September 2010, a lower court found that the Alien Tort Statute does not permit foreign plaintiffs to sue corporations and dismissed the case brought by Kiobel. The Supreme Court, now hearing the case for the second time, is looking at the corporate question and more broadly at the legitimacy of American courts considering the legality of actions that occur on foreign soil.