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

Published on May 19, 2016        Author: 
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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. Read the rest of this entry…