A United States Senate bill passed unanimously last Tuesday that would allow the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia over its imagined “role” in the plot, is not only foolhardy, ill-considered and reckless, but also off the deep end in the way it violates a core principle in international law.
Moreover, its sponsors on the Hill, Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-New York) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), appear oblivious to the bill’s unintended consequences — the harm it is likely to cause the United States’ relationship with the Kingdom (a historic relationship formalized as far back as 1945 with the landmark meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal) and the precedent it would likely set for the tit-for-tat prosecution of American officials overseas by citizens of bereaved countries.
By virtue of Sovereign Immunity, a legal doctrine in international law, which protects nations from legal action filed against each other in their respective courts, a state is immune from both civil suits and criminal prosecution. Schumer, a lawmaker, doesn’t buy any of it. He told reporters when challenged on the questionable liberties the bill appears to be appropriating: “The courts are following what we believe is a nonsensical reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. The fact that a foreign government may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done.”
That can be seen as both an incendiary and a flippant reading of the law. The sponsors of the bill don’t seem to realize that they are playing with fire, for by tampering with, or frivolously reinterpreting the law to suit their politicized needs, they are placing the United States in a tight spot. Why shouldn’t other countries, for example, turn around and effect similar changes in their own reading of Sovereign Immunity?
Consider this: What’s to stop Chilean citizens from going to their own federal courts to sue the United States for Henry Kissinger’s machinations in their country back in 1973, machinations that resulted in the torture, execution and “disappearance” of thousands of their compatriots at the hands of coup plotters allegedly financed, trained and directed by the CIA? What is to stop Palestinians from suing the US government for the horrific action of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish American mass murderer who perpetrated the 1994 massacre, at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, that resulted in the killing of 29 Palestinian worshipers and the wounding of 125 others?
What is to stop Lebanese plaintiffs from suing the US for the Qana massacre in southern Lebanon in 1996, when Israeli troops, supplied with American weapons, technology and aid, fired shells at a UN compound where 800 Lebanese civilians had taken refuge, killing 106 men, women and children. And what is to stop people, say, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, who consider extrajudicial killing of civilians in their countries by drone strikes acts of state terrorism, from going after the US in their courts as well? And so it goes.
You can see where, by tampering with Sovereign Immunity, one is in danger of opening a whole can of worms. As Curtis Bradley, professor of Public Policy Studies at Duke University, warned in an op-ed piece in the New York Times days before the clueless legislators in the Senate passed their bill last Tuesday: “Congress has not considered the risk that removing the protections foreign governments enjoy in our courts could invite lawsuits in other countries against the US or its officials for alleged extrajudicial killings or acts of terrorism if the US is seen as departing from the Sovereign Immunity principles recognized in international law.”
There is also the danger, in this instant, that Saudi-US relations will sour no end as a consequence — relations, it should be repeated, that have remained warm and unshakable since 1945.
This infamous bill, known as Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JAST), still has to get through the House of Representatives and be signed by President Barack Obama, who has pledged to veto it, though the veto, as expected can — and most probably will — be overridden by a two-thirds majority, thus paving the way for legislation that would allow lawsuits to move forward in federal courts.
Our American friends should stop so whimsically politicizing 9/11, and putting in jeopardy a six-decade-old relationship between us, and come to their senses. To paraphrase that popular slogan about the dangers of driving drunk, friends don’t let friends talk bunk. And the JAST bill is bunk — treacherous bunk to be sure, but bunk nevertheless.
— Courtesy: Arab News