The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), also known as the 9/11 Bill, was drafted and pushed into law with a veto override by the US Congress, because a groups of American citizens wanted the power to hold state-sponsors of terrorism accountable. In giving people the ability to sue foreign governments and official in US courts, the objective of JASTA was to offer victims of the September 11th 2001terrorist attacks closure by exposing any potential links the Saudi government might have had with Al Qaeda. The broader goal of JASTA is to empower Americans through the authority of the US legal system in order to hold foreign governments and officials accountable for their wrongdoing.
In a democratizing world where technology is forcing transparency, the pursuit of justice and the individual power to hold governments accountable has a universal appeal. As such, activists around the world are likely to follow America’s lead and seek similar provisions to hold foreign governments and officials accountable. It was, of course, this very appeal that compelled the Obama Administration to veto JASTA. Due to the fact voting against something called the “9/11 Bill” is political suicide, most members of the US Congress voted to override Obama’s veto, but they will seek to weaken JASTA for the same reasons Obama opposed it. Instead, they must both address JASTA’s legitimate faults and make government more accountable.
Neither President Obama nor members of Congress are necessarily against JASTA, because it empowers citizens. In practice, JASTA erodes what is known as “sovereign immunity.” Sovereign immunity exists to ensure foreign leaders can acts as representatives of their governments in foreign countries without fear of reprisal for doing their jobs and acting in what they believe is the best interests of their countries. Sovereign immunity allows the US government to work with foreign governments without daily interference from individual citizens. Just as Congress must defer to the Executive Branch when it comes to foreign policy, the Courts must do so as well; otherwise, the US President cannot effectively manage US foreign policy.
The problem with sovereign immunity is that it has become a shield for wrongdoers. When foreign officials do wrong in foreign lands, it is their legal system, their government, and their People who are suppose to hold them accountable. Due to a lack of accountable at home, foreign immunity has become a means for foreign officials to shirk culpability. Governments, such as the US government, are supposed to hold powers like Saudi Arabia accountable for not holding their officials accountable. Due to politics and a broader need for Saudi Arabia as an ally, the US government does not do this. For this reason, sovereign immunity appears responsible for a lack of accountable, yet it is actually the failure of governments to hold their own officials and each other accountable that is the problem.
The fundamental flaw of JASTA is that it relies on the US legal system, which has no jurisdiction beyond US borders. Consequently, rulings against foreign powers may or may not be enforceable, especially if foreign officials decide to cut ties with the West. The only thing JASTA will, therefore, do is invite a flood of near-meaningless litigation, discourage foreign powers from working with the US, and encourage similar litigation to be taken against US citizens. It would, therefore, be more effective and constructive to craft a JASTA that allows US citizens to compel the US government to adopt policies that hold foreign powers accountable for not holding their officials accountable.
In practice, JASTA is feared by world leaders, because it exposes a vast majority of public officials to legal jeopardy, whether or not they were engaged in actual wrongdoing and support of terrorism. There are plenty of people who would love to see officials in Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, Israel, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere brought to court for policies that have intentionally, and unintentionally, supported terrorist activities. A flood of unenforceable court cases will, however, do nothing to actually address state-sponsors of terrorism. Governments must be forced to hold each other accountable and their representative accountable. Unfortunately, even the leadership of relatively small countries cannot be held accountable for attacks in today’s system. Until people are empowered to force their governments to police each other, big and small countries alike will never be held accountable.
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