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  • The Anatomy of Torture: A Documentary History of Filártiga v. Peña-Irala
  • Beth Van Schaack (bio)
The Story Behind the Case that Launched a Legal Revolution William J. Aceves , The Anatomy of Torture: A Documentary History of Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (Leiden and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2007), 793 pp.

I. Introduction

Every once in a while, a case comes along that changes everything. Filártiga v. Peña Irala1 was one of those cases. The Filártiga plaintiffs made an audacious assertion: that Paraguayan victims of human rights violations could bring suit in a US federal court against a Paraguayan perpetrator for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed in Paraguay in violation of international law. The case established many firsts: that the Alien Tort Statute (ATS)2 supports assertions of extraterritorial jurisdiction, that long articulated but rarely enforced human rights norms are justiciable, that the individual is front and center in international law as victim and perpetrator, and that ensuring a robust system of accountability is consistent with the interests of the United States. Filártiga empowered hundreds of additional victims to mobilize the US legal system against human rights abusers who would otherwise find safe haven in the United States. Before Guantánamo and its repercussions, the United States boasted the most vibrant system of civil domestic human rights enforcement in the world. Professor William Aceves' engaging new volume The Anatomy of Torture: A Documentary History of Filártiga v. Peña-Irala3 tells the story of this system of civil enforcement developed through a rich account of the Filártiga case and its progeny.

Aceves' project joins the "law stories" movement in legal pedagogy exemplified by Foundation Press' excellent series of course supplements.4 Although sharing many of the law stories' features, this volume is more than a stereoscopic [End Page 1042] treatment of a single case and its impact. The text also includes a fascinating and exhaustive documentary history compiled from a variety of governmental and non-governmental sources within the United States and Paraguay. The mix of legal and political artifacts—complete with pleadings and opinions, embassy cable traffic, and transcripts of key hearings—enables a more complete understanding of the litigation process from pre-filing investigation to final judgment and all the hurdles in between. Indeed, Aceves was able to uncover intriguing information about the case that is not at all part of the official record from a variety of sources, including through the Freedom of Information Act.5

Aceves' book offers a compelling read for anyone interested in international human rights and their enforcement. With its more technical emphasis on the evolution of legal doctrines essential to ATS litigation, the book is geared more toward lawyers, academics, and students than toward laypersons.6 For the legal community, the book will undoubtedly serve many purposes. For one, its discussion of key precedents provides essential reading and an invaluable reference tool for practitioners of ATS litigation.7 From the perspective of legal pedagogy, the book has the potential to be a wonderful teaching tool for courses on the international legal process, transnational civil procedure, and human rights theory and practice. For students enrolled in law school human rights clinics, the book will provide a great introduction to the ebb and flow of human rights litigation.

The author is uniquely well suited to undertake this study of transnational human rights litigation. Aceves teaches international human rights, foreign affairs law, and civil procedure at California Western School of Law, where he serves as the Director of the School's International Legal Studies Program. In addition to his scholarly pursuits in these areas, Aceves has participated actively in a number of cases in the Filártiga tradition as litigation advisor and "friend of the court." Aceves is also on the board of the Center for Justice and Accountability, one of the primary human rights organizations devoted to ATS litigation, and works regularly with Amnesty International. Given his insider's perspective, it is no surprise that his book is a definitive account of this seminal case and its impact.

II. The Case

Professor Aceves' documentary record begins with the police...


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