Can Victims of Terrorism Sue Foreign Governments?

Caitlin McLaren - 3T Chemical
Posted on: May 19, 2016

While terrorists are usually non-state actors, they are frequently sponsored by states who agree with them ideologically or want to take political advantage of the terrorist group’s actions. In fact, many acts of terrorism would not have been possible without the assistance of various legitimate governments. For the most part, this is difficult to prove against a government, and they are rarely served justice.

This is partly due to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which limits the possibility of suing a foreign sovereign nation in United States courts. However, the U.S. Senate has now passed a bill circumventing this law, allowing victims and families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi government. While the Saudis have strenuously denied any involvement in the attacks, fifteen of the nineteen attackers were from Saudi Arabia, and there has always been widespread suspicion that they were aided by Saudi government officials and members of the royal family. John F. Lehmann, a former member of the commission which investigated the 9/11 attacks, recently spoke out saying that there was an “awful lot of circumstantial evidence” implicating the Saudi government. While the 9/11 Commission’s report stated that there was no evidence implicating Saudi Arabia, 28 pages of the report remain classified, leading to suspicions that those pages contain evidence that Saudi Arabia does bear some responsibility for the attacks. Considering Saudi Arabia’s importance in the oil market and status as one of America’s few allies in the Middle East, openly blaming the Saudis for 9/11 would have serious political implications. Some suggest that the American government has suppressed such evidence and refused to act against Saudi Arabia for economic and political reasons.

The bill is called the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” and the Senate has now passed it, which means that it will now go before the U.S. House of Representatives. If it does become law, it will allow countries who are accused of sponsoring terrorist attacks on American soil to be sued in Federal Court. Many think that President Obama will veto the bill, but that remains to be seen.

Similarly, a month ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that families of victims of attacks sponsored by Iran should be allowed to sue Iran for damages. The most notable plaintiffs are the families of Marines killed in the 1983 Beirut Barracks bombings, carried out by a precursor to Hezbollah. A federal district court had ruled several years ago that the Iranian government was responsible, and that the Central Bank of Iran needed to hand over nearly 2 billion dollars in frozen assets to the plaintiffs. The bank appealed to the Supreme Court, which in a 6-2 ruling sided with the plaintiffs.

Of course, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is pleased with these recent decisions. Saudi Arabia claims that they were “wrongfully and morbidly accused” and threatens to sell 750 billion dollars’ worth of assets they hold in the U.S. if the bill becomes law. Many American officials are not eager to jeopardize their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Rouhani has said that Iran will challenge the ruling in international courts. Furthermore, Iran’s outgoing Parliament has passed a bill in response, demanding compensation for various American actions in Iran, especially the CIA-backed coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, American support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and the destruction of Iranian oil platforms in 1988. This is the outgoing Parliament; a new Parliament has already been elected and will take office on May 28. The composition of the Parliament will change significantly, with the conservatives who currently dominate going down to fewer than half of the seats. Thus, it is difficult to predict how they will act on this. Because Iran does not hold significant frozen American assets, though America does hold Iran’s, the bill seems mainly to make a stance, as Iran does not have a great ability to seize any reparations.

However, there is controversy in America over both issues. Many feel that it might start a dangerous precedent that will be detrimental to the U.S., which has its own checkered history of interfering with other countries. These naysayers believe that such cases may backfire against America in the future, and America may be forced to pay compensation for some of their less savoury historical actions.

To the families of terror victims, however, both of these come as a relief. Many have been fighting a legal battle for many years, and believe that they will soon see justice for their deceased loved ones. Still, even for that goal there is a great deal more work still to be done, and the final results of these cases are uncertain. The far-reaching political implications in both situations mean that, in one way or another, the entire world will be affected by these events.