Does JASTA Violate International Law?

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is now the law of the United States, Congress having overridden President Obama’s veto of the bill. Among other things, JASTA amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) by adding a new terrorism exception that is not limited to designated state sponsors of terrorism. The European Union has claimed that JASTA “conflict[s] with fundamental principles of international law and in particular the principle of State sovereign immunity.” Because the version of JASTA that is now law differs significantly from the version I considered back in April, it is worth taking a fresh look at whether JASTA violates international law.

The United States has had a terrorism exception in the FSIA since 1996, the current version of which is found at Section 1605A of Title 28 of US code. Section 1605A provides that a foreign state shall not be immune from suits seeking money damages for personal injury or death caused by certain acts like torture and extrajudicial killing—or material support for such acts—by foreign government officials. But this provision is limited to countries designated by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism (currently Iran, Sudan, and Syria).

The new terrorism exception added by JASTA is not limited to state sponsors of terrorism, but it is limited in other ways. The new Section 1605B provides that a foreign state shall not be immune from suits seeking money damages for personal injury or death, or for injury to property, occurring in the United States that is caused by (1) “an act of international terrorism in the United States;” and (2) a tortious act of a foreign state or its officials “regardless where the tortious act or acts of the foreign state occurred.” The tortious act of a foreign state may not, however, be an omission or “constitute mere negligence.” 

It is clear that customary international law requires states to recognize foreign sovereign immunity in at least some cases. In the Jurisdictional Immunities Case (Germany v. Italy), for example, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that international law requires immunity with respect to torts committed by armed forces during an armed conflict (para. 78). Customary international law rules of immunity—like customary international law rules more generally—must be based on a general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation or opinio juris (para. 55). States may, of course, go further than international law requires and grant foreign states more immunity from suit as a matter of comity. But “the grant of immunity in such a case is not accompanied by the requisite opinio juris” and therefore does not establish rules of customary international law. See id. Looking at the practice of states with respect to foreign sovereign immunity, it is not always easy to tell where international law stops and international comity begins.

Like many other nations, the United States follows a restrictive theory of foreign sovereign immunity, under which the immunity of foreign states does not extend to their private and commercial acts (acta jure gestionis) but generally does extend to their governmental acts (acta jure imperii). But “generally” does not mean “invariably.” The FSIA contains a number of exceptions to immunity that may apply to the governmental acts of foreign states, including the expropriation exception (Section 1605(a)(3)) and the territorial tort exception (Section 1605(a)(5)). The ICJ has also been careful not to hold that the line between immunity and no immunity neatly tracks the line between governmental and non-governmental acts. In Jurisdictional Immunities, it noted at paragraph 64 that “none of the national legislation which provides for a ‘territorial tort exception’ to immunity expressly distinguishes between acta jure gestionis and acta jure imperii.”  And at paragraph 65, the ICJ limited its holding in that case to armed forces during armed conflict, leaving open the question whether other governmental acts might not be covered by immunity. So even if acts of terrorism or providing material support for acts of terrorism were properly considered governmental, such a classification would not by itself entitle those acts to immunity under international law.

Focusing on the new terrorism exception more specifically, there appears to be no general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation establishing that foreign states are entitled to immunity for acts of terrorism or material support of such acts. To be sure, most states that have statutes governing foreign sovereign immunity do not have exceptions for terrorism. But it is not clear that the states extending foreign sovereign immunity to cover terrorist acts do so out of a sense of legal obligation. Again, as the ICJ noted at paragraph 55 in Jurisdictional Immunities, unless state practice is “accompanied by the requisite opinio juris,” it does not establish a rule of customary international law. Significantly, there are two states—the United States and Canada—that do have terrorism exceptions in their foreign sovereign immunity laws. A terrorism exception has been part of U.S. law since 1996 and part of Canadian law since 2012, and neither exception, to my knowledge, has provoked the sort of widespread protests from other nations that one might expect in the case of a clear violation of customary international law. Perhaps that will change with JASTA’s new terrorism exception, and such protests would provide new evidence relevant to the international law question. But the lack of protests prior to JASTA is more evidence that a terrorism exception does not violate customary international law.

Critics might point out that Canada’s terrorism exception and the old U.S. exception were both limited to designated state sponsors of terrorism, while JASTA’s new exception is not. Certainly this difference may be relevant to whether the new exception is good policy, as President Obama pointed out in his veto message. And this difference might also provoke new protests from other states, which would provide more evidence of customary international law regarding terrorism exceptions. But it is hard to see how this difference determines whether JASTA violates customary international law or not. Foreign sovereign immunity typically turns on the nature of the act, and international law does not typically dictate the particular processes a state must use to grant or deny such immunity. If customary international law allows the United States and Canada to deny foreign sovereign immunity when they have designated a particular country as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is not because the United States and Canada have satisfied some customary international law requirement with respect to designation. It is rather because customary international law does not require foreign sovereign immunity for terrorist acts in the first place.

Although new Section 1605B is written as a terrorism exception, it also finds support in the exception—well established under customary international law—for territorial torts. Recall that while Section 1605B does permit a suit for damages to be based on the tortious acts of a foreign state or its officials outside the United States, it also requires both conduct and injury inside the United States—specifically, “an act of terrorism in the United States” and injury or death “occurring in the United States.” In Jurisdictional Immunities, the ICJ recounted the extensive state practice establishing an exception to foreign sovereign immunity for torts occurring in the forum state, although the Court also found that this exception did not extend to the activities of armed forces during armed conflicts. (See paragraphs 64-79.) Specifically, the ICJ noted that while the territorial tort exception had “originated in cases concerning road traffic accidents and other ‘insurable risks,’” national legislation codifying the exception was written in more general terms (para. 64). Prior to JASTA, U.S. courts had adopted an “entire tort” interpretation of the FSIA’s territorial tort exception (§ 1605(a)(5)), requiring that not just the injury but also all of the tortious conduct have occurred in the United States. But it is not clear that such a limitation is required by customary international law. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties, for example, would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred “in whole or in part” in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction. And it may be that the U.N. Convention is in fact more generous with immunity than customary international law requires.

In a previous post, I noted that there are various approaches to organizing state practice with respect to foreign sovereign immunity. The results may depend heavily on the baselines from which one begins and the levels of generality at which one reads state practice. Fully addressing those questions would require far more space than this post allows, but perhaps one observation may be made. In determining the customary international law of foreign sovereign immunity with respect to armed forces during armed conflict in Jurisdictional Immunities, the ICJ considered that “the most pertinent State practice is to be found in those national judicial decision which concerned the question whether a state was entitled to immunity in proceedings concerning acts allegedly committed by its armed forces in the course of an armed conflict” (para. 73). The Court found an almost unbroken practice of judicial decisions extending such immunity, even when the acts were committed on a state’s own territory (paras. 73-77). There is no similarly unbroken practice of forum states extending immunity to foreign states that provide support for terrorist acts causing injury and death within the forum state.

Powerful arguments have been made that JASTA is bad policy, that it will not in fact help the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and that it will hurt our relations with important allies. I am not disputing those points. My only claim here is that JASTA does not clearly violate customary international law. 

About the Author(s)

William S. Dodge

Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law and Co-Reporter for the Restatement (Fourth) of Foreign Relations Law: Jurisdiction. From August 2011 to July 2012, he served as Counselor on International Law to the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State.