For the first time since President Barack Obama took office nearly eight years ago, Congress voted last week to overturn a veto, passing an act allowing U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in federal court.
The law, officially titled the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, JASTA, clarifies that foreign governments —which have long possessed legal immunity in U.S. and most international courts — are not immune from lawsuits related to terrorism.
The veto was overridden by a vote of 348 to 77 in the House of Representatives and 97 to 1 in the Senate. Senate minority leader Harry Reid was the only senator to vote against the override, while Bernie Sanders and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine voted “present,” without endorsing or condemning the law.
In vetoing the law, President Obama expressed “deep sympathy” for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. But in a statement from the White House, he argued that the act would “neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.”
He expressed particular concern about the threat JASTA poses toward sovereign immunity, saying that the law threatens to “strip all foreign governments of immunity,” based on mere allegations by private citizens.
Captain David Iglesias, director of the Wheaton College Center for faith, politics and economics, suggested that reciprocity is likely a concern. Foreign governments may respond by enacting similar laws, which could undermine the concept of sovereign immunity as it has been practiced since the 16th century.
JASTA is primarily a response to Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Though the country has always denied any involvement with the attacks, 15 of the 19 hijackers involved were of Saudi origin. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — set up to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks — has found no evidence supporting Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Iglesias pointed out that they had “no legal or civil recourse” for seeking justice. As an outcome of JASTA, these victims would be able to sue countries that supported al-Qaeda, the terror organization that claimed responsibility for the attacks. No country openly supports al-Qaeda, but some argue that Saudi Arabia’s support of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect in Sunni Islam, makes an indirect connection. To successfully sue Saudi Arabia, a plaintiff would have to prove in U.S. court that there is “enough of a nexus between the government and al-Qaeda” to show clear support of the attacks.
The first suits were filed within days of the passage of JASTA. If Saudi Arabia were to lose a suit, they would forfeit assets they have stateside.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the law was “of great concern” to countries that believe in sovereign immunity. Saudi businesses and organizations have threatened to pull assets out of the country, citing concerns that they could be sued now by victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. The law is written broadly to include not just Saudi Arabia but also the few, if any, other countries that have assets in the U.S. that can be seized and have been accused of state-sponsored terrorism.
Others cite concerns of precedent. Iglesias noted that since “countries tend to pass laws that mirror laws that could harm them,” other countries could pass similar laws which might harm American interests.
Junior political science student Stephen Watts expressed concern that this law could be “extremely dangerous” to the United States’ interests. He believes that the United States government has sometimes been involved in “ethically dubious things,” mentioning incidents like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Iglesias pointed out that if other countries adopted similar laws to JASTA, then American assets abroad could be also threatened by lawsuits.