Just as he was about to be handed a degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard University in 1991, Gen. Hector Gramajo was served with papers charging him in a Federal civil suit for his role in torturing people in his homeland, Guatemala.
Clad in his academic gown, General Gramajo regarded what was happening to him as a foolish affront. The next day, when he was served with a second set of papers in connection with the rape of a nun by soldiers under his command, he spat on the process server.
A year later, a Federal court ruled in favor of the eight Kanjobal Indians and the nun who sued with the help of human rights lawyers.
The action against General Gramajo was but one recent episode in a remarkable development in American law that has accelerated this year: the use of United States courts to enforce international human rights standards. Federal courts are being used to bring torturers and dictators in uniform to account.
In recent months there has been a series of developments in cases against a former Philippine dictator, a former Argentine police general, a former Ethiopian military commander, a former Haitian President and the leader of the Bosnian Serbs.
The phenomenon dates to 1980, when the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York won a suit on behalf of Dr. Joel Filartiga and his daughter, Dolly, who charged that a police inspector-general of Paraguay, who was then living in Brooklyn, had tortured their son and brother Joelito to death. A Federal trial judge ruled that while torture was indeed horrible, United States courts had no business getting involved when it happened elsewhere. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, in a landmark ruling, said such victims could seek redress in Federal courts if the torturer had taken refuge in the United States.
The principal legal basis for that case and many subsequent ones has been the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, enacted by the first Congress to punish piracy on the high seas.
If it seems a stretch to sue people in the United States for violations committed elsewhere, consider a scenario in which you are visiting England and are hit by a car; the driver visits the United States and you sue him here for the accident.
Perhaps you could have brought suit in England, but you choose to serve the driver while he is here on vacation. In the human rights cases, the plaintiffs are rarely able to bring suit in their home countries.
The trick is that today’s global economy and the attractiveness of the United States means that many human rights defendants come here, or move some assets here.
Last month, for example, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, heard arguments on whether to uphold a suit brought by Edgegayehu Taye and two other Ethiopian immigrants. While working as a waitress at an Atlanta hotel, Ms. Taye saw a former Ethiopian Government official working as a bellman. The former official, she said, had supervised hours of interrogation and torture while she hung upside down from a pole in a prison in Addis Ababa.
The former official, Kelbesso Negewo, was held liable for $1.5 million in damages.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who died in 1989, brought himself and much of his fortune to the United States. Ralph G. Steinhardt of the George Washington University Law School has been both an author of an important law review article detailing how to use the Filartiga precedent, and a lawyer in one of several successful suits against Mr. Marcos for human rights violations. The suits against the Marcos estate have yielded damage awards nearing $2 billion.
Professor Steinhardt said settlement talks would be held later this month in Hong Kong among representatives for the Marcos estate, the victims and the Philippine Government, which has taken custody of many Marcos family’s assets.
The main criticism of the practice of suing a dictator or torturer in the United States is that even if the lawsuit is successful, getting any money out of the defendants is rare.
But Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has been involved in many of the major lawsuits, said there are other benefits: victims feel better, and defendants suffer consequences. More important, he said, such defendants are branded as outlaws, and “can never come back to the United States or go to any country where we might collect their assets.”