In early June, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Florida against certain sheiks from the United Arab Emirates, accusing them of kidnapping and enslaving children and forcing them to ride camels (WSJ lawblog article). The case was brought under the Alien Tort Statute ("ATS"), which gives U.S. federal courts jurisdiction to hear cases brought by anyone, including foreign nationals, for injuries “in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” For a whole discussion on the ATS, see anything written on the subject by Bill Dodge, or the Opinion Juris Discussion of the ATS and the last big SCOTUS case addressing it. The case brings up a slew of novel and interesting questions for those of us at all interested in international law, including head of state immunity, forum non conveniens, and international comity. This seems to be the plaintiffs' bar's first foray into human rights law, and not everyone was pleased with it. As Bill Dodge was quoted in a New York Time's article:
“It’s a bad thing that the class-action firms are getting into this area,” William Dodge, a law professor at Hastings Law, told the Times. “They don’t know as much about international law, and they don’t pick their battles as carefully. They’re motivated not just by a concern to promote human rights but also by money and a desire to use these kinds of suits to get a settlement.”The UAE actually set up a whole media-ready website in response, called "dubaicameljockeys.org"
On July 30, 2007, the judge dismissed the case for a lack of personal jurisdiction (both under Florida's and the federal long arm statute) , thus avoiding some of the trickier questions that would have otherwise arisen. Seems the Sheiks did not have many meaningful contacts with the Sunshine state and the Court did not find plaintiffs' allegations that some corporations doing business in Flordia were the alter egos of the Defendants to be very convincing. While a win for the sheiks, this does not foreclose future litigation of this sort.
I think it would have been interesting to see how the court would have handled the accusation that the children were enslaved. The Sosa decision mostly limited the causes of action under the ATS to only those three that were unequivocally intended to be enforced at the time of the ATS's adoption in 1781: violating safe conduct, infringing the rights of ambassadors, and piracy. But the majority opinion did say that it would be willing to apply the statute to other, more modern concepts:
Accordingly, we think courts should require any claim based on the present-day law of nations to rest on a norm of international character accepted by the civilized world and defined with a specificity comparable to the features of the 18th-century paradigms we have recognized.Surely slavery would fall under this definition, wouldn't it?