Showing posts with label DR Congo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label DR Congo. Show all posts

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Alien tort animates U.S. lawsuit in abduction of 'Hotel Rwanda' hero, threatens immunity of social media

Paul Rusesabagina at the University of Michigan in 2014
The alien tort statute has turned up more than usual lately in my newsfeed.  In two compelling appearances, the law is implicated in the criminal prosecution now underway in Kigali of "'Hotel Rwanda' hero" Paul Resesabagina, and it has a cameo in the section-230-reform show now playing on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Professor Haim Abraham, of the University of Essex School of Law, spoke to the Obligations Discussion Group, organized by the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, on his current working paper, "Holding Foreign States Liable in Tort."  Working at the intersection of torts and human rights, Professor Abraham is passionate about the problem of accountability for wrongs perpetrated by state actors.  His present work means to outline a policy framework to support state liability, and he made a reference in passing to the American alien tort statute (ATS).

Dating to 1789, the ATS, complemented by the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), is a principal legal avenue to liability for torts committed abroad.  ATS liability, though, runs up against serious hurdles, namely, the law's own vague scope, and foreign sovereign immunity.  On its own terms, the ATS only pertains when a wrong rises to a violation of international law or treaty, often imprecise benchmarks.

The enigmatic 18th-century enactment says little else.  Especially in recent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has grown fastidious in its interpretation of the law, rejecting claims without sufficient nexus to the United States.  Meanwhile, ATS plaintiffs must take care to pursue wrongdoers as rogues, lest defendants present as state actors entitled to foreign sovereign immunity.  The TVPA was a mitigation of that latter limitation.

Sharing Professor Abraham's appetite for accountability, not to mention my self-interest in full employment for torts professors, my attention is captured anytime the ATS turns up in a way that might yield fresh fruits.  And so it has.

Graves of genocide victims in Rwanda in 1995
(photo by Gil Serpereau CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The New York Times, among others, has reported on the shady chain of events that led to the presently ongoing criminal trial in Kigali of Paul Resesabagina, the man who saved some 1,200 lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and whose story was turned into a major motion picture starring Don Cheadle.  Living outside Rwanda first in Belgium and then in the United States, Resesabagina has been an outspoken critic of Rwandan authorities, both as to the genocide and as to subsequent Rwandan foreign policy, including alleged involvement in war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He knew better than to return to Rwanda, but, reports state, Resesabagina thought he was on a plane to Burundi for a speaking engagement when the plane landed in Kigali, and he was placed under arrest on terrorism charges.

There's plenty to debate about the criminal matter in Rwanda, but my focus here is on events back home.  Rusesabagina's family in San Antonio, Texas, in December 2020, sued GainJet and Constantin Niyomwungere in federal district court under the ATS and TVPA, and in Texas tort law on counts of fraud, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.  GainJet is the company that conveyed Rusesabagina from his Dubai layover to Kigali, and the family alleges that Niyomwungere, a purported pastor who invited Rusesabagina to to speak in Burundi, was in fact a secret operative of the Rwandan government.

The pleadings mean to represent the abduction as a violation of international law, besides common law torts, and to bring the case within the scope of the TVPA, too.  The complaint characterizes the abduction of Rusesabagina as "extraordinary rendition" and charges the defendants with torture of Rusesabagina upon or after his landing in Kigali, stating that he was kept bound, blindfolded, and gagged for days and "physically and psychologically tortured" in interrogation.

GainJet B757 ascending from Coventry, England, in 2015
Niyomwungere is characterized alternatively as a state actor or a free agent working with the state, to deal with immunity on that front.  Either he was a state actor, in which case the state would have to concede its role in the abduction, or he was a rogue, subject to tort liability (if he can be brought within U.S. jurisdiction).  The complaint furthermore alleges that GainJet, a private charter company based in Athens, Greece, was a knowing co-conspirator with the Rwandan government, so the GainJet pilot and co-pilot, knowing what was afoot, failed to signal an emergency in the air.  The complaint catalogs GainJet commercial outreach to Rwanda and speculates that the firm was anxious for work amid the Greek economic debacle.

The complaint asserts that the matter in sum sufficiently "touches and concerns the United States" to satisfy Supreme Court requirements, because the defendant-conspirators reached out to Rusesabagina at his Texas residence to lure him abroad.  That by itself is a thin reed, but the U.S. residency of the plaintiffs bolsters the nexus.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats are circulating a proposed bill that would carve out some slices of Internet service providers' infamous tort immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  Section 230 reform has become a bipartisan cause since both Democrats and Republicans, often for different reasons, have sought to blame social media companies for our present national discontent, whether for not censoring enough or for censoring too much.

The proposal does not represent a wholesale repeal and reinstatement of conventional publisher liability in tort, as some congresspersons called for.  Among proposed new immunity exceptions are actions in civil rights law, antitrust law, "stalking, harassment, or intimidation laws," wrongful death, and, lo and behold, "international human rights law," specifically, the ATS.

The theory behind the proposal as to the ATS is that social media companies over which the United States has jurisdiction could be held liable for having facilitated human rights violations abroad.  As Lauren Feiner observed for CNBC, this measure

could be particularly risky for Facebook, which acknowledged in 2018 that it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” on the platform as Myanmar military officials sought to weaponize it in what became characterized as a genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslims. The SAFE TECH Act would clarify that Section 230 immunity should not bar suits under the [ATS], which could allow survivors of the genocide in Myanmar to bring cases against the platform in the U.S.

People displaced by violence in Myanmar in 2012
(photo by UK Department for International Development CC BY-SA 2.0)
Myanmar would be only a starting point, as social media, including Facebook's WhatsApp, have been blamed for eruptions of violence around the world, notably including mob violence in India (which I talked about at a Dubai event in 2019 sponsored by India-based Amity University).  Plaintiffs would face the usual high hurdles of the ATS, including the international law requirement and the requisite U.S. nexus, as well as hurdles in conventional tort law, such as duty and proximate causation.  But it's not hard to imagine plaintiffs surviving dismissal to see discovery.  Even without further process, discovery would be a boon to human rights advocates.

Over its centuries of life on the books, the alien tort statute has been counted out as a dead relic, resurrected as a reputed redeemer, and wrangled as a menacing mischief-maker.  What seems certain now, whether under the ATS, TVPA, or instruments yet to be devised, is that in our smaller world, the challenges of legal accountability for both states and corporations for transnational misconduct cannot be written off easily as beyond the scope of national concern or domestic jurisdiction.

The case in Texas is Rusesabagina v. GainJet Aviation, S.A., No. 5:20-cv-01422 (W.D. Tex. filed Dec. 14, 2020).  At the time of this writing, PACER shows no activity since filing.

The section 230 reform bill was introduced in the Senate, 117th Congress (2021-2022), on February 8, 2021, as S.299.