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Domesticating the Law of Immunity: The Supreme Court of Canada in Kazemi v Iran

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International lawyers typically think that when a case deals with a matter of international law, once you know the position under international law, then this will give you the answer. Unfortunately, before domestic courts, that is not always the case. Late last month, the Canadian Supreme Court issued its judgment in Kazemi Estate v. Islamic Republic of Iran [2014] SCC 62 (the Quebec Superior Court Judgment was discussed on the blog here). The case, following on the Ontario Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment in Bouzari, serves as a stark reminder that the application of international legal principles in domestic proceedings will frequently be governed or mediated by domestic legislation, which often reflects domestic priorities in addition to international principles. The role that international law should play in such cases, as either a source or a means of interpretation, may be contested. The Kazemi v Iran Judgment is the latest instalment in a series of important domestic court decisions on the law of State immunity.

Background

Ms. Zahra Kazemi was a Canadian citizen and freelance photographer and journalist who died in custody in Iran in 2003, following her detention, torture and sexual assault in prison The authorities refused to return her body to Canada and buried her in Iran. Although a domestic investigation reported links between the Iranian authorities and her torture and death, only one person was charged and he was acquitted after a trial which lacked transparency.

Seeking justice for his mother’s death, Ms. Kazemi’s son, Mr. Stephan Hashemi, sued the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei (Iran’s Head of State), Mr. Mortazavi (Chief Public Prosecutor of Tehran), and Mr. Bakhshi (former Deputy Chief of Intelligence at the prison where Ms. Kazemi was detained), claiming damages for his mother’s suffering and death, and for the emotional and psychological harm that this caused him. Predictably, the defendants sought to dismiss the motion based on claims of state immunity, which is implemented in Canada by the State Immunity Act (SIA). This challenge ultimately reached the Supreme Court of Canada, (more…)

Is there a place for sovereign immunity in the fight against terrorism? The US Supreme Court says ‘no’ in Bank Markazi v. Peterson

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The US Supreme Court’s judgment of 20 April 2016 in the case of Bank Markazi, aka The Central Bank of Iran, Petitioner v. Deborah Peterson, et al. highlights the increasingly isolated nature of US practice on sovereign immunity. As well as addressing issues of constitutional law, the judgment is also significant from an international law perspective; the highest jurisdiction of the US took a dangerous step toward the effective application of its terrorism exception to sovereign immunity.

The terrorism exception was introduced to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA) by an amendment made in 1996, and then further revised in 2008.  28 U.S.C. §1605A reads:

A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States or of the States in any case […] in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act if such act or provision of material support or resources is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency.

The court can hear a case under this provision provided the foreign State has been designated as a State sponsoring terrorism by the Department of State and the claimant or the victim was at the time of the act a US national. This law aims at providing justice for victims through massive civil liability judgments, punishing foreign States committing or sponsoring terrorism, and discouraging them from doing so in the future.

In this post I focus not on the content of the judgment, but rather on the impact of US practice, which has recently seen all assets of the Iranian Central Bank located in the US subject to execution, on international law. (more…)

Extraterritorial Civil Jurisdiction: Obstacles and Openings in Canada

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Bruce Broomhall is a Professor at the Department of Law of the University of Quebec at Montreal, teaching mainly international and Canadian criminal law. He thanks François Larocque, Mark Arnold and others for their input.

On 18 April 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a trio of decisions promising to have an important impact on how Canadian law responds to attempts at civil recovery for international law violations occurring abroad, or partly abroad.

The cases are based on issues of classic private international law, not human rights or public international law. Club Resorts Ltd. v. Van Breda dealt jointly with two cases (of plaintiffs Van Breda and Charron) asking whether an Ontario court had and should exercise jurisdiction over civil claims arising from Cuban sun vacations in which severe personal injury (Van Breda), death (Charron) and related damages were claimed. The importance of Van Breda lies in the test that the Supreme Court lays out for determining the existence of jurisdiction in a case with trans-boundary elements. The accompanying Éditions Écosociété Inc. v. Banro and Breedan v. Black are actions in defamation that examine primarily (and Van Breda also examines) the issue whether jurisdiction, once recognized, should in fact be exercised, or whether it should instead be declined on grounds of forum non conveniens. This posting looks at the former question.

Van Breda presents an assessment of the ‘real and substantial connection’ required for the exercise of civil jurisdiction under the exclusive competence over “Property and Civil Rights” that Canada’s Constitution Act 1867 (at s.92(13)) accords to the Provinces and their courts. As the Court points out, this test has been the source of confusion to litigants and judges alike. It is both a principle of constitutional law used to prevent ‘jurisdictional overreach’ by any given province (a question left aside in Van Breda), as well as a principle of private international law, typically for purposes of international jurisdictional coordination (the focus of the decision) (paras. 22ff.). [One might add that it is also the concept set out in the seminal Libman case for determining the scope of territorial jurisdiction for criminal law purposes.] The Court’s aim in reformulating the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in the instant case was to encourage predictability in jurisdictional determinations based on the test and so to restrict case-by-case variability. The Court identifies four connecting factors that raise a rebuttable presumption that a court has jurisdiction over a given case: that the defendant is (1) domiciled or resident in or (2) carries on business in the forum province, or (3) the tort was committed or (4) a contract connected with the dispute was made there (para. 90). The Court allows (at para. 91ff.) for courts to develop additional connecting factors in accordance with strict criteria. Nonetheless, where no listed or new presumptive connecting factors are present, “a court should not assume jurisdiction on the basis of the combined effect of a number of non-presumptive connecting factors” (para. 93).

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Two New Decisions on Subject-Matter Immunity, Torture and Extrajudicial Killings

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 Lorna McGregor, Senior Lecturer, School of Law, University of Essex. Her publications include: Torture and State Immunity: Deflecting Impunity, Distorting Sovereignty’, 18 European Journal of International Law 903 – 919 (2007) and ‘State Immunity and Jus Cogens’, 55(2) International and Comparative Law Quarterly 437 – 445 (2006)

 2011 is already proving to be an eventful year for those interested in the relationship between immunities and allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings.  Both the European Court of Human Rights (in Jones v. United Kingdom, Mitchell & Ors v. United Kingdom and Nait-Liman v. Switzerland) and the International Court of Justice (in Germany v. Italy – previous EJIL:Talk! posts here and here) have cases pending before them and two lower courts in Canada and the US have recently issued judgments on the subject-matter immunity of foreign officials.  Both Kazemi v. Iran and Ors (Canada) and the district court decision in Yousuf v. Samantar (US) involve allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings committed in Iran and Somalia respectively. Although the courts in both decisions found that foreign governmental officials sued in those cases do not possess subject matter immunity, they reached this conclusion by very different means. While the US Supreme Court in Samantar had denied that the US Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act did not apply to individual officials, the Canadian court in Kazemi held that the Canadian State Immunity Act does apply in principle to individual officials. The US District Court rejected immunity for the official by deferring to the views of the executive while the Canadian case reached the decision on the basis of judicial interpretation of the domestic tort exception to immunity.

Kazemi v. Iran

 At the end of January, the Canadian Superior Court of Quebec issued its decision in Kazemi v. Iran and Ors. Stephan Hashemi, the son of a Canadian photojournalist, Zahra Kazemi, who was allegedly tortured and killed in an Iranian prison in 2003, instituted civil proceedings in the Canadian courts against the Islamic Republic of Iran, its Head of State, Chief Public Prosecutor and Deputy Chief of Intelligence.  He brought the action on behalf of his mother’s estate and also claimed for the emotional and psychological injuries he allegedly suffered in Canada as a result of his mother’s detention and death and Iran’s subsequent refusal to repatriate her body to Canada. (more…)