For multinational corporations facing allegations of human rights abuses, the stakes have never been higher. Last winter, Chevron Corp. stood trial in an Alien Tort Claims Act case in San Francisco, accused of responsibility for murder and torture carried out by the Nigerian military. In April an ATCA trial is set to begin against Royal Dutch Shell plc in New York, also for torture and murder by Nigerian forces. A trial in Washington, D.C., to determine Exxon Mobil Corp.’s liability to Indonesian villagers over alleged killings and torture by Indonesian soldiers should take place later this year. Given the vast potential damages in these cases, along with the dramatic harm of accusations of complicity in human rights violations, attention to ATCA and human rights issues must be a priority for companies doing business overseas.

Part of U.S. law since 1789, ATCA allows aliens to file lawsuits in U.S. federal courts based on “violations of the law of nations” wherever they are committed. The act largely remained dormant until 1979, when Paraguayan citizens invoked it in a case in New York against a Paraguayan police official for acts of torture and murder in Paraguay. When the lawsuit was permitted to proceed, many others followed.

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