According to the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, U.S. federal courts "shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." With few exceptions, this provision was rarely invoked for 200 years. But in recent years, foreign victims of human-rights abuses have cited the act in bringing actions under the U.S. law.
In 1991 the United States Congress passed the Torture Victim Protection Act. This federal statute permits civil lawsuits against those accused of committing torture or murder "under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation." As the language intended, victims or their representatives may confront not only the perpetrators of such crimes but their superiors who bear responsibility.
Armed with these laws, the plaintiffs have brought civil actions against the Salvadoran generals (both of whom reside in Florida). In the first trial, the generals were found not liable in U.S. Federal District Court, a decision that has been appealed by the families. What is not in dispute is that the lawsuits are permissible under current United States law.