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Amerada Hess Shipping Corp. v. Argentine Republic

decided: September 11, 1987.


Amerada Hess Shipping Corporation and United Carriers, Inc. appeal decision of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Robert L. Carter, J., finding their lawsuit against Republic of Argentina for violating international law barred by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330, 1602-1611. Last supplemental brief filed July 24, 1987. Reversed and remanded. Judge Kearse dissents in a separate opinion.

Feinberg, Chief Judge, Oakes and Kearse, Circuit Judges.

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Chief Judge

This case presents the important question whether a federal district court has jurisdiction over a claim that a foreign sovereign, in violation of international law, attacked on the high seas a neutral ship engaged in the United States domestic trade. Amerada Hess Shipping Corporation (Amerada) and United Carriers, Inc. (United) appeal from a decision of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Robert L. Carter, J., dismissing their complaint for lack of jurisdiction, 638 F. Supp. 73 (S.D.N.Y. 1986). Appellants argue that both the Alien Tort Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1330, 1602-1611, provide jurisdiction over their claims that the Republic of Argentina destroyed an oil tanker on the high seas in violation of international law. We conclude that the Alien Tort Statute does provide jurisdiction and that the FSIA does not bar it. Accordingly, we reverse and remand to the district court.

I. Background

Because the district court dismissed United's complaint for lack of jurisdiction, we must accept appellants' allegations as true. In 1977, Amerada entered a long-term time-charter agreement with United for use of the oil tanker HERCULES. Amerada used HERCULES to carry oil from Alaska, around the southern tip of south America, to its refinery in the United States Virgin Islands. This route took HERCULES near the area in the Southern Atlantic where, in April 1982, an armed conflict began between Argentina and the United Kingdom that became known in this country as the Falklands War.

On May 25, 1982, HERCULES embarked from the Virgin Islands, without cargo but fully fueled, headed for Alaska. On June 3, in an effort to protect United States interest ships, the United States Maritime Administration telexed to both the United Kingdom and Argentina a list of United States flag vessels and United States interest Liberian tankers (like HERCULES) that would be traversing the South Atlantic, to ensure that these neutral vessels would not be attacked. The list included HERCULES.

By June 8, HERCULES was about 600 nautical miles off the Argentine coast and nearly 500 miles from the Falkland Islands, in international waters, well outside the "exclusion zones" declared by the warring parties. That afternoon, HERCULES was attacked without warning in three different strikes by Argentine aircraft using bombs and air-to-surface rockets.

Following these attacks, HERCULES, damaged but not destroyed, headed for safe refuge in the port of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although HERCULES arrived safely in Brazil, her deck and hull had both suffered extensive damage, and a bomb that had penetrated her side remained undetonated in one of her tanks. Following an investigation by the Brazilian navy, United determined that it would be unreasonably hazardous to attempt removal of the undetonated bomb. Accordingly, on July 20, 1982, approximately 250 miles off the Brazilian coast, HERCULES was scuttled. United's loss on the sunken ship is claimed at $10,000,000 and Amerada's loss on the fuel that went down with the ship is claimed at $1,901,259.07.

Following a series of unsuccessful attempts to receive a hearing of their claims by the Argentine government or to retain Argentine attorneys to prosecute their claims in the courts of that country, appellants filed their suits in the district court. The district court found that a "foreign state is subject to jurisdiction in the courts of this nation if, and only if, an FSIA exception empowers the court to hear the case." 638 F. Supp. at 75. Concluding that no FSIA exception covered these facts, the district court dismissed the suits for lack of jurisdiction. This consolidated appeal followed.

II. Violation of International Law

The facts alleged by appellants, if proven, would constitute a clear violation of international law. "The law of nations 'may be ascertained by consulting the works of jurists, writing professedly on public law; or by the general usage and practice of nations; or by judicial decisions recognizing and enforcing that law.'" Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, 630 F.2d 876, 880 (2d Cir. 1980)(quoting United States v. Smith, 18 U.S. (5 Wheat.) 153, 160-61, 5 L. Ed. 57 (1820)). Of course, the mere fact that many or even all nations consider an act a violation of their domestic law does not suffice to create a principle of international law. IIT v. Vencap, Ltd., 519 F.2d 1001, 1015 (2d Cir. 1975). "It is only where the nations of the world have demonstrated that the wrong is of mutual, and not merely several, concern, by means of express international accords, that a wrong generally recognized becomes an international law violation." Filartiga, 630 F.2d at 888. In this case, treaties, case law and treaties establish that Argentina's conduct, as alleged by appellants, violates settled principles of international law.

International treaties and conventions dating at least as far back as the last century recognize the right of a neutral ship to free passage on the high seas. Broad international recognition of the rights of neutrals can be found in paragraph 3 of The Declaration of Paris of 1856: "Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy's flag."

A more contemporary statement of the international concern and accord on this issue may be found in The Geneva Convention on the High Seas of 1958 (Convention on the High Seas), to which both Argentina and the United States were signatories. The Convention on the High Seas maps the general usage and practice of nations with regard to the rights of neutral ships in time of war. Article 22 of that treaty states that a warship encountering a foreign merchant vessel on the high seas may not board her without grounds for suspecting her of engaging in piracy, or the slave trade, or traveling under false colors. Even when there are grounds for such suspicion, the proper course is to investigate by sending an officer to inspect the ship's documents or even to board her, not to commence an attack. If such inspection fails to support the suspicions, the merchant vessel shall "be compensated for any loss or damage that may have been sustained." Article 23 of the Convention on the High Seas makes similar provisions for aircraft that have grounds to suspect a neutral vessel. Clearly, Argentina's alleged conduct in this case, bombing HERCULES and refusing compensation, violates the Convention on the High Seas. More recently, the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 explicitly incorporated these provisions into its text. Argentina is a signatory to the Law of the Sea Convention and the United States has endorsed the relevant sections of it.

Other international accords adopted by the United States supporting a similar view of the rights of neutral ships include The London Naval Conference of 1909, the International Convention Concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War (Hague Convention, 1907) and the Pan-American Convention Relating to Maritime Neutrality of 1928, to which Argentina was a signatory. No agreement has been called to our attention that would cast doubt on this line of authority.

As to "judicial decisions recognizing and enforcing" the rights of neutral ships on the high seas, federal courts have long recognized in a variety of contexts that attacking a merchant ship without warning or seizing a neutral's goods on the high seas requires restitution. See, e.g., Talbot v. Janson, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 133, 161, 1 L. Ed. 540 (1795); The Lusitania, 251 F. 715, 732-36 (S.D.N.Y. 1918) (dictum); cf. The I'm Alone (Canada v. United States), 3 U.N. Rep. Int. Arb. Awards 1609 (1933). Similarly, the academic literature on the rights of neutrals is of one voice with regard to a neutral's right of passage. See, e.g., Rappaport, "Freedom of the Seas," 2 ...

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