On August 7, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Sarei v. Rio Tinto, PLC, overturning the district court’s dismissal. Plaintiffs, residents of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, allege they were victims of human rights and environmental abuses associated with Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine. This victory will not only benefit the plaintiffs in Sarei, but also sets a valuable precedent that could prove critical in many other cases challenging human rights and envronmental abuses.
This case is particularly important for at least three reasons. First, the court held that a corporation can be held liable under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) where it aided and abetted abuses or where members of the military act on behalf of the corporation in committing abuses. Although many other courts had already ruled that those who aid and abet abuses can be held liable under the ATS, corporate defendants and the Bush Administration have continued to argue that aiders and abettors should be immune from suit. This decision is a serious blow to those who advocate impunity. Second, the Ninth Circuit recognized that certain environmental harms are actionable under the ATS; in particular, racially discriminatory environmental harms and violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Third, the Court held that the case could proceed despite the Bush Administration’s statement that it would interfere with U.S. foreign policy. This aspect of the decision is critical, as the Administration has submitted similar statements in other cases as part of their efforts to eviscerate the ATS.