California Governor Jerry Brown signed the first comprehensive human rights accountability bill at the State level into law this week. AB 15, which passed through the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support, represents a major step forward for human rights claims brought at the state level.
California will be the first state to offer survivors of human rights abuses an extended period to file their claims in court. The long-overdue reform bill extends the period from two to ten years for serious human rights abuses, including torture, war crimes, extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity. It also extends the time for filing human trafficking claims.
“Survivors often emerge from perilous circumstances, possess little money or resources, and face extraordinary legal burdens in building their cases. The current two year period is much too short to overcome these unique hurdles,” said Marco Simons, General Counsel, EarthRights International. “This law will ensure that more victims of serious human rights abuses will have access to the courts.”
AB 15 marks a significant step forward in several respects. It is the first state law that attempts to address accountability for a range of serious human rights abuses. It marks the first time that any U.S. state has codified a definition of crimes against humanity; even the federal government has not done so. The law also provides an award of attorneys’ fees for victims who prove their claims, which should help to ensure that they are able to find lawyers to take their cases.
“With global awareness of human rights issues, including trafficking issues, increasing, AB15 sends a strong message that California plans to take these issues seriously, to create space in their courts for these claims to be heard, and to be a leader in ensuring human rights are realized and remedied,” said Amol Mehra, Director of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR).
The bill was put forth in collaboration with local, national and international human rights groups, with EarthRights International and the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable leading the effort. The supporting groups applaud the leadership of Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) in introducing and championing AB 15, a bill to ensure access to justice for survivors of human rights abuses.
While a significant step forward, the law still allows the possibility that California would become a safe haven for perpetrators of human rights abuses. “If someone commits torture outside California, and then moves into the state, they will not face the longer statute of limitations,” noted Simons. “We hope that the legislature will soon rectify this gap in accountability.” Additionally, the law will not help those whose claims were already more than ten years old before the law was enacted.