The bill that would essentially allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia opens up interesting questions regarding accountability and national sovereignty.
Last week the House had passed a pretty controversial bill known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. The bill essentially would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for their financial connections to al-Qaeda. While a bipartisan bill like this would easily get written into law, the Obama administration has said, in no uncertain terms, that President Obama would be vetoing the bill once it reaches his desk.
So what gives? Well, it’s more complicated than it originally seems. Here’s what you need to know about the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
Point 1: For years the families of 9/11 victims – along with some corporations – have been trying to sue countries like Saudi Arabia for their alleged involvement with the 9/11 attacks. Many claim Saudi Arabia had financed al-Qaeda – the terrorist group that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks – and should be held accountable for monetary damages.
Point 2: The roadblock these families face however comes in a law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (or FSIA). The US law specifically puts limitations on whether a sovereign nation (like Saudi Arabia) can be sued in court either at the state or federal level. Under FSIA, the victims’ families have no legal standing to sue Saudi Arabia directly. Essentially FSIA is upholding a long held agreement among many nation states that citizens won’t take legal action against sovereign nations (aka “sovereign immunity”).
Point 3: With that said, there are states which the US officially sanctions as “sponsors of terror” (like Syria and Iran) which the US would allow victims of terrorism to sue. That is how the family of Steven Sotloff – an American journalist that was killed by ISIS – was able to sue Sudan, a country that is on the US’ “sponsors of terror” list. However Saudi Arabia is not on that list.
Point 4: Originally the families of 9/11 victims tried to loosen the defined parameters of FSIA in hopes of being able to sue under the current laws, but their appeals have failed thus far. That’s what left the door open for Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act to be introduced in Congress.
Point 5: The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) allows exceptions to FSIA so that families affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks could sue Saudi Arabia for their involvement, essentially widening the FSIA exceptions. While the Senate passed the bill in May, recently it passed the House and is headed to President Obama’s desk where it’ll be vetoed.
Point 6: There are one of two ways to look at the White House’s opposition to JASTA. They either (a) want to protect Saudi Arabia and not further strain the US-Saudi relationship OR (b) are worried JASTA could leave the US susceptible to foreign prosecution (more on this is a bit). In regards to the Obama administration’s opposition to the bill, it’s most likely a combination of both (a) and (b).
Point 7: Critics of JASTA insist that the law would weaken sovereign immunity internationally. By allowing 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government, the US could potentially set precedence for other countries to do the same. To be clear, critics aren’t saying the passing of JASTA would automatically negate the practice of sovereign immunity, but it’s passing could potentially open the flood gates to similar laws being enacted, which would weaken sovereign immunity over time. Potentially this could open the US to be sued by foreign groups for past military conflicts.
Point 8: Interestingly enough, constitutionalists are also worried about the passage of JASTA. They believe JASTA could potentially create a conflict with the divisions between the three branches of government. In the US governmental system, only the executive branch of government (ie the office of the US President) has the power to make foreign policy decisions, with some of that power being shared with the legislative branch (ie Congress). But many have argued with the passage of JASTA, this would give the judicial branch a way to affect foreign policy through court rulings.
Point 9: Supporters of JASTA however insist that would only be limited to holding only Saudi Arabia accountable their actions. They also claim that the passage of JASTA could potentially curb states from financially backing terrorist groups in the fear of citizens suing their governments; though to be fair, that seems unlikely.
Point 10: It’s really not all that surprising that JASTA got a bipartisan push through both the House and Senate. In an election year like this one, where so many Congressional races are up for grabs, going against a 9/11 victims bill basically writes its own attack ad. At the same time, something like JASTA affects US foreign policy way too much to actually be written into law. For the Obama administration, vetoing the bill is the only real option. While there have been threats from Congress overriding President Obama’s veto, in reality cooler heads should prevail on the matter, eventually not passing Congress.
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