Saudi official warns US’s 9/11 law could have ‘serious unintended consequences’

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or Jasta, allows for lawsuits against countries that are not officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism for attacks that killed Americans on US soil.
Democratic senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer (centre-left) and Republican senator John Cornyn (centre-right), the co-authors of the Jasta bill, speak to reporters following the Senate override vote on September 28, 2016. Shawn Thew/EPA
Democratic senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer (centre-left) and Republican senator John Cornyn (centre-right), the co-authors of the Jasta bill, speak to reporters following the Senate override vote on September 28, 2016. Shawn Thew/EPA

ABU DHABI // A Saudi foreign ministry official has warned that a new US law allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Riyadh could have “serious unintended consequences”.

The law “is of great concern to the community of nations that object to the erosion of the principle of sovereign immunity”, the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted the unnamed official as saying late on Thursday. “[It] will have [a] negative impact on all nations, including the United States”.

The official’s comments came even as lawmakers who voted for the bill in Congress began working to draft an amendment that would prevent major fallout.

Despite warnings from US allies in the Gulf and Europe, the White House and senior military and intelligence officials, the US Congress voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to override president Barack Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or Jasta.

The administration had warned before the vote that Jasta would undermine the principle of sovereign immunity and pave the way for lawsuits by private citizens in foreign courts against US diplomats, military officials and businesses for past military actions taken by Washington.

Jasta allows for lawsuits against countries that are not officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism for attacks that killed Americans on US soil. Long-stalled lawsuits against Riyadh by families of people killed in 9/11 can now go forward.

Economic experts have said the investment environment in the US for sovereign wealth funds and foreign companies could sour if there is uncertainty about sovereign immunity. Once lawsuits begin, plaintiffs can request that a hold be placed on a country’s assets until the suit is resolved. Saudi officials have reportedly said they will be forced to withdraw assets worth at least US$500 billion (Dh1.8 trillion), including US treasury debt, to protect them from such freezes.

But while Jasta could erode the principle of sovereign immunity, it may not be able to achieve its proponents’ intended effect of victims’ families being able to collect damages from Riyadh.

Last-minute changes were added to the bill, which mean “the claims will never get anywhere”, Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, and Jack Goldsmith, a law professor at Harvard, wrote last week in an op-ed for CNN.

“The government might be able to place such suits on permanent hold; even if it fails, the plaintiffs have to show Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks to prevail; and even if they can, there’s no mechanism to compel the Saudi government to pay any damages.”

Even before they voted to override Mr Obama’s veto, senior senators were working on a new law that would amend Jasta, addressing widespread concerns about its consequences. The override was supported by 97-1 senators – in large part because the vote came during the final stages of an election campaign cycle; legislators were loathe to pay political costs for the bad optics of voting against victims of 9/11.

“If you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take. But it would have been the right thing to do,” Mr Obama said in an interview with CNN after the override vote.

Both the White House and senators who supported the bill, including co-sponsors, reportedly assumed that the House of Representatives – the lower congressional chamber – would not take up the bill. If that had happened then senators would have been able to have their cake and eat it too, claiming the political capital of supporting 9/11 victims without the bill ever becoming law.

Now, senior senators are working on a compromise amendment that may limit the scope of the law to just the 9/11 attacks in order to prevent the sovereign immunity erosion. But it’s unclear that the authors of the bill will agree.

“That tells the Saudis, go ahead and do it again, we won’t punish you,” the Democratic co-author of the law, senator Charles Schumer said on Thursday.

The White House, meanwhile, described Congress’s override as “an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people”.

“It’s hard to take at face value the suggestion that they were unaware of the consequences of their vote, but even if they were, what’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress: Ignorance is not an excuse – particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

tkhan@thenational.ae

Published: September 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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