Showing posts with label FSIA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label FSIA. 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.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Tort liability brakes U.S. policy shift on Sudan, marks crossroads of past, future where Africa meets Arabia

Street corner in the Arabian Market district of Khartoum
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

With economic sanctions exacting an intensified toll amid the pandemic and humanitarian crises fraying the peace at political borders, 40 million people in the East African Republic of Sudan may hope that long awaited normalization of relations with the United States will bolster stability and produce prosperity.  Meanwhile, in Washington, American tort claims have thrown a wrench into the diplomatic works.

Smaller Sudan after 2011 (LouisianaFan CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unending War

Before its 2011 division into north and south, Sudan was the largest country in Africa.  Its location is strategically important.  Sudan borders Libya and Egypt to the north, the lifeline of the Nile flowing into the latter.  The country's Red Sea coast positions Port Sudan opposite Jeddah and Mecca.  Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) sit to the west, and Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east—where more than 40,000 Ethiopian refugees have fled conflict and now strain Sudan's thin resources.  Tumultuous northern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda, the latter yielding the Nile, lie in reach of South Sudan's capital, Juba, along with a disputed stretch of border with Kenya.

At last abandoning imperial ambition in 1953, the British left Sudan to the tempest of regime rise-and-fall that tragically characterized post-colonial power vacuum in Africa.  The country declared itself independent in 1956, but for a quarter century, no one form of government would stick.  An Islamic state brought about some political consistency in 1983, but plenty of ills, too: reigniting civil war between north and south, and paving the path of three decades' dictatorship and an abysmal human rights record under President Omar al-Bashir, from 1989 to 2019.

Part of embassy bombing memorial in Dar es Salaam
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Relations with the United States went from bad to worse after Sudan backed Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War.  Osama bin Laden took up residence in Khartoum for five years at that time.  He built a favorable reputation for philanthropy by building legitimate businesses and financing infrastructure projects, such as the main highway, named for him, linking Khartoum to Port Sudan.  In 1993, the United States listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Under U.S. pressure, Sudan expelled bin Laden in 1996.  But Sudan was not spared blame when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, killing 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens, and injuring thousands.  U.S. retaliation included a cruise-missile strike against a Khartoum chemical plant—unfortunately and very likely a target accused erroneously of complicity in chemical weapons manufacture.

Ironically, the bin Laden-orchestrated terror attacks of September 11, 2001, set Sudan and the United States on a winding road of fits and starts toward reconciliation.  U.S. President George W. Bush recognized the need for American allies on the East African doorstep to the Middle East.  U.S. policy leveraged austere sanctions to incentivize Sudanese cooperation in counter-terrorism, and the Bashir regime was supportive.

Sudan needed help, too.  The civil war between the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), started in 1983, had never ended.  The exhausting conflict, which ultimately cost more than 2 million civilian lives, was dragging into one of the longest civil wars in modern history—besides that it was really a sequel to the never-quite-resolved first Sudanese civil war of 1955 to 1972, another tragically typical consequence, in part, of arbitrary colonial political borders.  Multi-national diplomatic interventions helped at last to draw the war to a close in 2005.  The peace agreement led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011, a development that seemed promising at the time, but since has seen the two states teetering ceaselessly on the brink of combustion.

A spellbinding sampling of the human toll of the civil war can be found in Dave Eggers's What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006).  Spanning events from 1983 to 2005, the book is an artfully novelized memoir of a real child refugee among Sudan's "lost boys."

In 2017, the Obama Administration further loosened sanctions on Sudan.  A coup in 2019 sent Bashir from office the same way he came in, and in 2020, Sudan reconstituted itself as a secular state.  Al-Bashir, 76, is now in prison for corruption.  Marking a significant policy reversal, the government has signaled that it might be willing to turn Bashir over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution in connection with the genocide in Darfur during the second civil war.  In October, the Trump administration moved to clear the way for U.S. businesses to reenter Sudan, bargaining the country's de-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for Sudanese recognition of Israel.  The administration was accused of too-little-too-late effort to bolster its foreign policy portfolio in the run-up to the 2020 election, but, at this point, the end means more than the motive.

Persistent Perseverance

In short order, Sudan has transformed from war-torn religious state, ruled by a dictator accused of crimes against humanity, to secular constitutional democracy, pivotal in Middle East peace and primed for western commercial investment.  In other words, Sudan might be in the midst of a remarkably rapid transition from paradigmatic problematic state to African success story.

View of Khartoum and the Nile from Corinthia observation level
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Long acquainted with the hardships of war and sanctions, the Sudanese have persevered, developing a resilient infrastructure and an enviable standard of living, especially relative to neighbors such as the CAR, the DRC, and Eritrea.  Sudanese teens wield smartphones in the dustiest of wayside villages.  Sudan has oil and refining capacity, though the division of natural resources between north and south remains a key cause of simmering contention.  The Khartoum skyline is dotted with structures infamously financed by deliberate defiance of sanctions.  Representative is the Corinthia Hotel: opened in 2008, the oval-shaped building is called "Gaddafi's egg," because Libya paid for its €80m construction.

Wayside fuel and rest area, Shendi-Atbara Road, Al Buqayr
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At present, Sudan has one arm tied behind its back.  Trucks sit idle in fuel queues.  Western credit cards don't work; cash is king.  For better and worse, local products, mostly MENA-manufactured, substitute for the usual globalized glut of soda and snack options in the convenience stores, excepting the universe's inexplicably irreducible constant, Coca-Cola.

If sanctions go away, an energizing flow of auto parts, industrial equipment, transnational banking services, and development of telecommunication and physical infrastructure will irrigate Sudan's thirsty landscape.  The new constitutional government will be boosted to a threshold on prosperity unprecedented in the nation's history.  Already in June, the UK announced a £150m commitment to ease democratic transition and coronavirus impact by combating inflation and poverty.  Sudan unbound stands poised to achieve African development in a region that's long been starved of a win.

But There's a Hitch

Tort liability in U.S. courts is presently a sticking point in negotiations over normalization of U.S.-Sudanese relations and the entry of American enterprise in Sudan.  In 1996, Congress amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) to allow civil lawsuits against foreign state actors for support of terrorism.  Survivors and families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombings sued Sudan in 2001.  The lawsuits floundered in the 20-aughts amid confusion over what plaintiffs, defendants, and causes of action Congress intended to authorize.  In 2008, Congress clarified the law on those questions and revived the earlier suits.

Subsequently, plaintiffs, numbering more than 700, won an award in federal court of $10.2bn, including $4.3bn in punitive damages.  The D.C. Circuit struck the punitive damages, doubting that Congress intended to authorize punitive recovery retroactively.  In May 2020, in Opati v. Republic of Sudan, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, vacating the striking of punitive damages and remanding for the lower courts to reconsider.  Litigation questions remain on remand.  The defense might yet challenge the constitutionality of the retroactive authorization of punitive damages, and it's not clear whether Congress intended foreign plaintiffs to be eligible for punitive awards.  Still, the massive compensatory award stands ripe for harvest.

Sen. Schumer in October (Senate Democrats CC BY 2.0)
All that litigation might, however, amount to naught if Congress acts again.  As a condition of the current agreement over sanctions and Israel, Sudan wants free of the Opati judgment.  In October, the State Department indicated willingness to negotiate immunity for Sudan against liability for past acts.  But that immunity would require another change of law, and Congress is not yet on board.

According to a report in Tuesday's New York Times, Sudan has offered a settlement of $335m, undoubtedly a more realistic number than multiple billions.  But Sudan has threatened to exit the agreement in whole if Congress doesn't authorize immunity by year's end.  Deadlocked legislators are trying to broker a compromise through a military spending bill in these first weeks of December.  To the displeasure of some in Congress, the working proposal would compensate U.S. citizens naturalized subsequently to the 1998 attacks less than those who were citizens at the time—working a de facto racial disparity.

Even if the 1998 claims can be resolved, a bigger hurdle looms in the prospect of blanket immunity-to-date for Sudan.  While Sudan did defend the embassy-bombing lawsuits on grounds of FSIA interpretation, it has not responded to the legal claims of, The Hill estimates, about 3,000 family members of September 11 victims who blame Sudan for bin Laden's five-year safe harbor there.  According to the New York Times story, those plaintiffs have the support of Senate leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to see that their claims are not extinguished.  It seems unlikely that a closely divided Congress would have any appetite to favor foreign tranquility over September 11 victims, no matter how much U.S. businesses are chomping at the bit to trade in Sudan.

Local heroes (with a smartphone) atop Jebel Barkal
(RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Last Week in Sudan

Here in the United States, if we hear about Sudan, it's likely to be in the context of civil war atrocities, the human rights abuses of the Bashir regime, or Middle East tensions.  Yet last week in Sudan, I saw little evidence of those worldly matters.  On the roads of Khartoum, in the markets, and in the countryside, I found only a gracious and warm people, a rich Nubian cultural tradition, and a stunning archaeological record of our shared human heritage.

Your interpid blogger at the Nuri Pyramids
(Steven Mueller CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Both of those views, the ugly and the beautiful, the grim and the genial, are Sudan.  We disregard the former at our hazard.  But to disregard the latter, we risk much more.

Sudan is the beating heart of the African continent.  Sudan will not forever be deterred by colonial legacy and the politics of aging superpowers.  However we manage to balance redress for past wrongs with a way forward, America will have to decide how to be a part of Sudan's future.  The only alternative will be to join the crumbling desert relics of Sudan's past. 

UPDATE, Dec. 13, 2020: See Conor Finnegan, Trump admin offered $700M to 9/11 victims to save Sudan deal, ABC News, Dec. 11, 2020.  UPDATE, Dec. 20, 2020: Sudan's Listing as Sponsor of Terrorism Ended by US, BBC, Dec. 14, 2020.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Federal court holds Syria liable to U.S. family for $300m in killing of journalist Marie Colvin

Syria owes more than $300m in wrongful death damages to the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while working for the U.K. Sunday Times covering the siege of Homs in the Syrian civil war in 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled January 30, per U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (e.g., N.Y. Times).

The Assad regime did not answer the lawsuit, and the court entered judgment by default.  The claim arose under the state-sponsored terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), 28 U.S.C. § 1605A.  The exception was amended into the FSIA in 2008 to strengthen an earlier 1996 exception after claims against Iran faltered in enforcement.  Section 1605A spells out the existence of a private cause of action in federal law, irrespective of the vagaries of state tort law.  The court found that the Colvin family presented sufficient evidence to prove that Marie Colvin's death was an "extrajudicial killing," beyond the shield of FSIA immunity.  The law also excepts torture, aircraft sabotage, and hostage taking from FSIA immunity.

The case is furthermore noteworthy because the court awarded damages to Colvin's sister upon a liability theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Typically in state law, actions alleging emotional distress inflicted on a "bystander" by the killing of a loved one fail for the plaintiff's inability to prove intent as to the suffering of the bystander.  However, in the Colvin case, the court reasoned that the very purpose of a terrorist attack is to inflict emotional suffering on third parties.

The court awarded the family $11,836 in funerary expenses and $300m in punitive damages, and awarded Colvin's sister $2.5m in damages for emotional suffering ("solatium").  Photojournalist Paul Conroy, who worked with Colvin and survived the Homs attack, told the BBC that the ruling is not about money, which the family likely will never see, but is important to de-legitimize the Assad regime in the community of nations.

Colvin's story is the subject of Under the Wire, a 2018 documentary film by Chris Martin, available on iTunes (trailer below), and A Private War, a 2018 dramatic film by Matthew Heineman (IMDb), starring Rosamund Pike, due for DVD/Blu-ray release on Amazon in February.  The screenplay derived from Marie Brenner's coverage of Colvin's life and death for Vanity Fair.



The case is Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No.