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Papua New Guineans' Alien Tort Act Claims Reinstated

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 27, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on the Alien Tort Act this week, ruling that Bougainville islanders can sue mine owner Rio Tinto for war crimes and genocide during a civil war with the Papua New Guinea government. The court concluded that Morrison v. National Australia Bank does not bar the claims.

Bougainville residents revolted against Rio Tinto in 1988 amid human rights and environmental complaints against the company. At Rio Tinto’s request, the Papua New Guinea military put down the revolt. Soon thereafter, Papua New Guinea imposed a military blockade on Bougainville to secure the mine, and the country fell into a decade-long civil war, reports The Huffington Post.

Papua New Guinea coa2

Image via Wikipedia

The plaintiffs' complaint alleged that Rio Tinto supported and encouraged Papua New Guinea's blockade that "prevented medicine, clothing and other essential items from reaching the people of Bougainville." They claim that the blockade caused the death of more than 10,000 Bougainvilleans, including more than 2,000 children in the first two years of the 10-year siege.

This latest Alien Tort Act lawsuit is certain to provide more food for thought for the Supreme Court as The Nine review Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Second Circuit ruling that found that companies could not be sued under the Act.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in this case, Sarei v. Rio Tinto, means that the circuit is in line with the Seventh and D.C. Circuits in finding that corporations can be sued under the Alien Tort Act. The Second Circuit is the only circuit that has rejected corporate liability under the Act.

But could the Ninth Circuit's endorsement of corporate liability bode ill for the plaintiffs who have succeeded in the circuits thus far? The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is the most-often reversed of the circuit courts.

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