Staff writer Matthew Boyle ’19 examines the implications of a new law allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue the Saudi Arabian government.
In September, Congress demonstrated a new, dumbfounded level of incompetence. Ironically, the Republican and Democratic parties in Congress expected the other to block a bill and while they each voted for it. The result was that together they overrode President Obama’s veto for the first time in his presidency to pass legislation that appears to have no understanding of international law.
That bill, made law on September 28, would allow relatives of the victims of the September 11 attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government. Support for the bill is based more on popular sentiment against the Saudi regime than on a defensible legal case against them. Many Americans were outraged when, according to Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times, newly declassified material revealed that members of the Saudi Royal family were funding extremist thought in American mosques and charities at the time 9/11 occurred. While this shows that Saudi Arabia is a terrible ally against Islamic extremists, it also serves as poor evidence that its government directly engaged in 9/11.
More importantly, the law defies sovereign immunity, an important legal principle that seems to have escaped the notice of more than two thirds of Congress. This is surprising given that conservatives in particular vehemently defend the U.S.’ immunity from prosecution under international law. In 2012, for example, 38 Senate Republicans voted down the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. According to Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Washington Post, the Republicans cited “cumbersome regulations that could threaten American sovereignty” as their reason for voting against it. If UN resolutions threaten sovereignty, then by the same logic this law threatens Saudi Arabia’s very independence.
Obama vetoed the original bill about Saudi Arabia because he realized it would be an obvious double standard for Americans to be allowed to sue foreign governments, while the U.S. and its citizens have never faced law suits for the countless civilians that have been maimed and killed by American predator drones. The law effectively endangers U.S. representatives in foreign countries with the threat of being convicted under foreign law. According to Adam Kredo of The Washington Free Beacon, a lobbying group in Iraq is already threatening to sue the U.S. government for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In an extreme scenario, every soldier who fought in the Iraq War could be sued for their actions.
On the other hand, perhaps absolutely nothing will come of this new law. Foreign governments may decide it is not worth entertaining the legal chaos that this law invites. In Iraq’s case in particular, suing the U.S. could open them up to lawsuits from Kuwait and Iran for past wars.
Whatever the result, this law was a mistake and those who passed it, know it. According to Dennis Steven at Bloomberg, both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were prepared to rewrite the legislation less than 24 hours after it passed. It seems in law, as in love, everyone does something they regret the next morning
By: Matthew Boyle ’19