Author: Elizabeth A. Wilson

[Dr. Elizabeth A. Wilson is Assistant Professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.] In the “Insta-Symposium” conducted here after the Supreme Court’s Kiobel decision, Peter Spiro linked to a piece by Samuel Moyn about Kiobel posted on the Foreign Affairs website and said he was “sympathetic” with Moyn’s conclusion that "human rights advocates would be better served to abandon the ATS, even to the extent that Kiobel leaves the door open.” Not willing to go quite so far as Moyn in celebrating the ATS’s demise, Spiro nonetheless said, “pressing corporate social responsibility norms may not lend itself to the same sort of sexy clinical offerings as the ATS, but it may be better preparation for today's real world of human rights practice.” These criticisms connect with important debates happening now concerning the “legalization” of human rights and the ability of human rights to offer “a real politics of change,” in Beth Simmons’ words, so it is important to see what lessons the Kiobel case  and its underlying facts really teach. For those not specialized in human rights, Moyn is a professor of history at Columbia who wrote a book called The Last Utopia in which he argued for a revisionist account of human rights history, stressing the discontinuity of human rights-- imagined as they are today as a feature in an international legal system -- with a host of ideas and events usually taken as antecedents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In his Foreign Affairs post on Kiobel, Moyn folds the ATS into this iconoclastic revision of human rights history, stating that the “ATS strategy” favored by American human rights lawyers "resulted in a narrow approach [i.e., a legal approach] that marginalized other options,” doing nothing “to address underlying political and economic problems.”  "Far better," he opines,” to move onto other ways of protecting human rights – less centered on courts, less rushed for quick fix, less concerned with spectacular wrongs to individuals and more with structural evils, and less disconnected from social movements abroad.”  Moyn asserts that “[t]here is little evidence…that the wave of ATS litigation has put a dent in the world’s suffering,” though he provides no evidence to support this claim.