Congress overrules Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill

Hira Rahman - 1A Nano
Posted on: October 8, 2016

Congress recently overturned President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), allowing family members of people killed in terrorist attacks funded by foreign governments to sue said governments. The bill essentially permits courts to wave claims of foreign sovereign immunity if an act of terrorism occurs in the US.

While the bill passed unanimously in May and September when it was first introduced to the Senate and House, Obama vetoed it in late September. To the disappointment of the Obama administration, the veto was overridden in both the House and the Senate. The senate voted 97-1, with only one democrat supporting the president’s veto. Similarly, the vote in the House showed similar results: 348-77 in favour of overriding the veto.

President Obama has strongly opposed the bill, stating that “this is not a bilateral US-Saudi issue. This is a matter of how generally the United States approaches our interactions with other countries. If we open up the possibility that individuals in the US can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries and that would be a bad precedent because we’re the largest superpower in the world and we are everywhere and we are in people’s business all the time and if we are in a situation where we’re suddenly being hauled into various courts because of the claim that some individual has been harmed, then that will tie us up and it will harm US servicemen and US diplomats.”

While Obama may have stated it in the most flattering way possible, the main argument against the bill is that it would make the US susceptible to similar lawsuits due to their alleged sponsorship of activities resulting in innocent deaths in other countries. In other words, what’s stopping the families of the civilians killed in American drone strikes from suing the United States? Although the US tragically lost around 3000 people in the 9/11 attacks, it has been responsible for the deaths of millions of people from numerous other countries across the globe in the last 30 or 40 years.

An almost immediate result of the bill was Iraq’s plan to use JASTA to demand compensation for the Iraq invasion and over violations by US forces following the invasion. A lobbyist group in Iraq by the name of Arab Project is pushing for “a full-fledged investigation over the killing of civilian targets, loss of properties, and individuals who suffered torture and other mistreatment on the hand of US forces.”

While the bill has been criticized for diminishing the principle of sovereign immunity, it is important to remember that this immunity has been used by numerous governments, the United States included, to bypass and shield themselves from accountability. Therefore, from a purely moral perspective, passing this bill does have a positive implication: family members of victims of terrorist attacks receive some form of restitution for their losses. On the other hand, this bill can and will jeopardize the US-Saudi alliance which may have many unintended consequences for both countries. For instance, seeing as Riyadh and Washington have an old relationship based on the exchange of security and oil, it is safe to assume that Saudi Arabia could reduce intelligence cooperation and financial investments with the United States.

Then, there is also the question of US accountability for their own less savory actions. Obama’s opposition to the bill is completely understandable when one considers the fact that many of the activities the United States has participated in globally have had serious negative consequences. Perhaps the Obama administration’s fear of retaliation from citizens of other countries in the form of lawsuits can be considered a positive implication in a moral sense. While JASTA may have many negative effects when it comes to diplomatic relations between countries, what is certain is that this bill is a win for those who do not condone American intervention in other countries and for those who support peace.