Shaping our global response to terrorism

As the world struggles to cope with international terrorist attacks, U.S. lawmakers are fighting to put justice for these crimes in the hands of individual citizens.

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, on September 9 after receiving the bill from the Senate who also gave unanimous approval earlier this year. The bill would allow victims of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil to sue foreign governments suspected of supporting such attacks for damages.

JASTA has been strongly campaigned for as a means of allowing victims of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center to sue Saudi officials. The recent release of 28 pages from a 2002 Congressional Joint Inquiry into the September 11 attacks raised questions about key members of the Saudi government and royal family and their role in providing intelligence and other resources to the individuals who carried out the attack.

However, the scope of the bill is far greater than this individual event. According to Section 2A, “Persons, entities, or countries that knowingly or recklessly contribute material support or resources, directly or indirectly, to persons or organizations that pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism . . . should reasonably anticipate being brought to court in the United States to answer for such activities.”

As written, JASTA would allow U.S. citizens to sue individuals and entire governments from any country for their involvement in attacks. Such legislation would leave many global nomads feeling trapped in the middle of their parent countries’ court battles.

Many foreign policy experts have expressed concerns about the possible consequences of this bill.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, detailed his concerns. “It’s dangerous when states get into other countries’ courts,” Alterman said. “What the president is imagining is this will create an environment where every court system in the world starts bringing the United States up on charges in foreign courts, and the United States has to defend itself.”

Alterman added, “There are a lot of non-American victims of terror outside of 9/11. There are more victims of collateral damage from U.S. military action in the last 10 years than there are U.S. victims of terror. We have been using drone warfare for more than a decade. There have certainly been civilian casualties.”

The Obama administration has expressed similar concerns. When questioned about the legislation during a September 12 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “You could have judges at different levels in different courtrooms, reaching different conclusions about the same country. That’s not an effective, forceful way for us to respond to terrorism.

“The other concern that we have also articulated is that this law actually opens up the United States to risk of being hauled into court in countries around the world,” Earnest added. “The concept of sovereign immunity is one that protects the United States as much as any other country in the world, given the way the United States is engaged in the world.”

The president has expressed strong opposition to the bill and plans to veto it.

Proponents of the bill believe these concerns are unwarranted.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, who supports JASTA, told WNPR news, “The United States does not sponsor acts of terrorism in other countries, and the courts of law in other countries could not hold the U.S. responsible for act that it does not do. And the U.S. has nothing to fear from real justice.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal speaks during Secretary Vilsack’s visit to the Henry A. Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford, ConnecticutSenator Richard Blumenthal has spoken out in favor of JASTA. Photo by USDA.gov [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Internationally, JASTA has been met with significant concern. Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Morocco, and many other countries have issued statements denouncing the legislation, arguing that it violates core UN principles.

JASTA “could lead to a real revolution in international law with potentially very serious political consequences,” said Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament, in a September 9 press release. “The risk is great to see the fundamental principles of international law (such as the sovereign immunity of the states) thus unilaterally changed by American law, create a true state of legal jungle, in which the victims of terrorism will attack all states, including states themselves victims of terrorism or allies.”

President Obama has until September 22 to veto the bill and send it back to Congress.

The result of this legislation will significantly impact how we interact across borders and work to solve shared issues in our increasingly globalized world.


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