It has been a decade since 100 members of the Ilaje tribe in Nigeria took over an offshore oil facility owned by a subsidiary of Chevron Corp. Why these people decided to occupy the platform, located nine miles off the Nigerian coast, is a highly contentious issue. What is not in dispute is that at the end of the three-day occupation, Nigerian government security forces, called in at the request of Chevron's subsidiary, shot four of the tribesmen, killing two of them.
Backed by several human rights groups, the surviving Illaje filed suit against Chevron in 1999, alleging the parent company was responsible for the deaths under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a law dating back to 1789 that has developed over time to allow foreign plaintiffs to bring suit in the U.S. for violations of the law of nations. The claim was based on the allegation that Chevron aided and abetted the Nigerian forces by paying them for security services. The plaintiffs characterized the occupants as peaceful protesters, while Chevron claimed they were hijackers who took over the platform and held the workers hostage.
The ATS has taken a winding journey over the last 200 years. For centuries, the act remained out of the limelight, gaining prominence in 1980 when it was used against a state actor in Fil?rtiga v. Pe?a-Irala, a suit filed against a Paraguayan police official for the torturing and killing of a Paraguayan man. The act was expanded in the early 1990s when it was used against a non-state actor in Kadic v. Karadzic.
The statute was first wielded against a corporation in 1997, when a group of Myanmar villagers used it to sue Unocal Corp. for commissioning Myanmar soldiers who allegedly practiced forced labor. Before that case could proceed to a verdict, Unocal settled.