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Universal Jurisdiction in the Area of Private Law - the Alien Tort Claims Act

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Chapter Summary

The Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 establishes the jurisdiction of the US federal courts for "all causes where an alien sues for a tort only in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States". The American courts have always insisted on a requirement: that the relevant norm of the "law of nations" be clear and specific. Until recently, the most commonly used test was whether the norm is "specific, universal and obligatory". The US Supreme Court accepted this qualification in its recent leading decision of June 2004 in the case of Alvarez-Machain v. Sosa. The wording of the Alien Tort Claims Act and the interpretation of the term "law of nations" by the US courts demonstrates that the United States as a State asserts the right to exercise universal jurisdiction in civil suits which concern violations of international law.

Keywords: Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789; Alvarez-Machain v. Sosa; law of nations; universal jurisdiction; US federal courts



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