Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sarei v. Rio Tinto, PLC case brief

Sarei v. Rio Tinto, PLC case brief summary
456 F.3d 1069 (2006)

Plaintiff Papua New Guinea (PNG) residents alleged that they or their family members were the victims of numerous violations of international law as a result of defendant mining corporation's mining operations and a 10-year civil conflict that followed an uprising at its PNG mine. They appealed the United States District Court for the Central District of California's dismissal of their Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA),28 U.S.C.S. § 1350, lawsuit.

A statement of interest (SOI) submitted by the U.S. Department of State asserted that continuation of the lawsuit would risk a potentially serious adverse impact on the conduct of United States foreign relations. The residents alleged that the mining corporation, with the assistance of the PNG Government, committed various egregious violations of jus cogens norms and customary international law including racial discrimination, environmental devastation, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.


  • The court held that the claims for war crimes, violations of the laws of war, racial discrimination, and for violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) all implicated specific, universal, and obligatory norms of international law that properly formed the basis for claims under the ATCA. 
  • The court also concluded that claims for vicarious liability for violations of jus cogens norms were actionable under the ATCA and that the mining corporation's liability for the PNG military's alleged war crimes had been sufficiently alleged. 
  • The court concluded that the SOI submitted did not carry the primary burden of establishing a political question.

The dismissal of all claims as nonjusticiable political questions was reversed. The dismissal of the racial discrimination claim on act of state grounds was reversed. The dismissal of the racial discrimination claim on comity grounds and the dismissal of the UNCLOS claims on act of state and comity grounds was vacated and remanded for reconsideration. The conclusion that the ATCA did not contain an exhaustion requirement was affirmed.

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