Foreign Officials Immunity: Implications for Human Rights Litigation

Foreign Officials Immunity: Implications for Human Rights Litigation

Thanks to Opinio Juris for inviting me to comment on Foreign Official Immunity Determinations in U.S. Courts: The Case Against the State Department, Professor Ingrid Wuerth’s timely and insightful article. The springboard for the article is Samantar v. Yousuf, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not apply to individual government officials. Samantar addressed only a discrete issue of statutory interpretation. The Court avoided any discussion of international law even though the parties and amici extensively briefed whether customary international law (CIL) confers immunity on foreign officials from lawsuits alleging human rights violations. Instead, the Justices instructed U.S. courts to determine the immunity of foreign officials under the “common law”—the legal regime that prevailed prior to the FSIA’s adoption.

Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s inattention to the international law backdrop to the Samantar case, I fully agree with Professor Wuerth that CIL is relevant to how U.S. courts should develop the common law of foreign official immunity. I also agree that a return to the pre-FSIA immunity regime should not be understood as delegating to the State Department the conclusive authority to determine whether a defendant is immune in a particular case, or to dictate the legal principles that courts must apply when making that determination.

In this brief comment, I first highlight the major contributions of Professor Wuerth’s article and then focus on the intersection of foreign official immunity and international human rights litigation under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA)—a topic that Professor Curt Bradley and I analyze in greater detail in a recently-published article.

The Case Against the State Department has many virtues. I will mention only three. First, Professor Wuerth situates Samantar in the context of other areas of U.S. foreign relations law. She shows that what at first glance appears to be a narrow and technical decision in fact has implications for important unresolved doctrinal issues such as the status of customary international law in the U.S. legal system, the propriety of federal common lawmaking in the area of foreign affairs, and the executive branch’s authority to promulgate rules that bind domestic courts. Foreign relations scholars who have given only passing attention to Samantar would do well to reconsider the case in light of the article’s cogent analysis.

Second, Professor Wuerth challenges head on the State Department’s assertion that it and it alone has “the power to resolve each and every immunity case as it sees fit, and to set out immunity law binding on the courts even in cases where it does [not] make a specific recommendation” (pp. 938-939). She systematically considers and rejects the plausible justifications for this claim: the Constitution’s text and history, functional considerations, and the implied authorization of Congress. This is an audacious position, one that is squarely at odds with two World War II-era Supreme Court cases and a handful of more recent lower court decisions that appear to give the executive branch precisely what it seeks—carte blanche over foreign official immunity determinations. The article pulls no punches in critiquing the anemic reasoning of these cases and the executive branch arguments that invoke them, demonstrating their inapplicability to a post-Samantar world in which the FSIA, other federal statutes, and CIL all suggest a more robust role for U.S. courts to develop common law immunity principles.

Third, The Case Against the State Department offers a nuanced, if abbreviated, roadmap for judges to make foreign official immunity determinations. Professor Wuerth identifies three “constraints,” in descending order of importance, that “limit and shape” (p. 968) federal common lawmaking: striving for consistency with the FSIA, avoiding violations of international law, and deferring to the executive branch on certain discrete issues. Of these constraints, the first—the continuing relevance of the statutory immunity regime—is the most surprising. Samantar decisively rejected the FSIA’s applicability to foreign officials. It thus seems counterintuitive to argue that the statute has any bearing on the immunity of those officials. Yet the article demonstrates that the FSIA indeed remains relevant to a number of key issues, such as whether immunity has been waived, whether an entity (and thus its employees) is properly characterized a foreign state or its agency or instrumentality, and whether a suit nominally against an individual government official should in fact be treated as one against the foreign state itself.

These constraints apply without regard to the subject matter of the underlying litigation. However, judicial development of common law immunity principles is likely to engender the most controversy in suits against foreign officials alleging violations of international human rights law. As Professor Bradley and I recount in International Law and the U.S. Common Law of Foreign Official Immunity, in the three decades following the Second Circuit’s groundbreaking 1980 decision in Filartiga v Peña-Irala, human rights litigation under the ATS and TVPA flourished largely unencumbered by immunity concerns. (Suits against sitting heads of state were a notable exception.) A majority of courts held (erroneously, Samantar has now clarified) that the FSIA did apply to individuals—but only for conduct undertaken in their official rather than their personal capacity. And most courts also concluded that those individuals were not acting in an official capacity when they committed human rights abuses. In making these determinations, however, these decisions did not consider the CIL of foreign official immunity.

U.S. courts may revisit these issues following Samantar. Consider each of the three constraints discussed in The Case Against the State Department. If courts interpret common law immunity in parallel with the FSIA, the prospects for ATS and TVPA litigation would dim considerably. Most human rights abuses are committed under color of law, although often in violation of it. Yet as the Supreme Court explained in Saudi Arabia v. Nelson, “however monstrous such abuse[s] undoubtedly may be,” they are “peculiarly sovereign” acts and thus shielded by immunity.

To be sure, nothing in Samantar or in Professor Wuerth’s analysis requires courts to develop the common law in lock step with the FSIA’s limited exceptions to immunity. It is uncertain, however, whether human rights litigation fares much better under the other two alternatives. If courts follow the executive branch’s lead (whether absolutely or by affording it a substantial degree of deference), immunity determinations are likely to vary according to a lawsuit’s foreign relations considerations, such as the country involved, the official’s position in its government, and the particular human rights allegedly violated. Indeed, the government’s amicus brief in Samantar lists a hodgepodge of no less than thirteen factors relevant to its immunity determinations, with no indication of their relative weight or how they should be balanced in any particular case.

This leaves international law. Traditionally, CIL extended immunity to officials from proceedings in other countries’ courts for actions taken on their state’s behalf. In the criminal context, this immunity has quickly eroded over the past decade, with courts invoking human rights treaties and principles to exercise criminal jurisdiction over former officials, including heads of state, charged with violating jus cogens. However, no comparable erosion has yet occurred in the civil context. Although few decisions (mostly by the Italian Court of Cassation) have embraced a broad human rights exception to immunity, courts in several other countries (including Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), have expressly declined to do so. In addition, challenges to decisions in both camps are pending before the ECtHR and the ICJ. As a result, the balance between immunity and accountability in international law remains very much in flux.

A key question, therefore, is whether U.S. judges should take the lead in shaping CIL to expand the civil liability of foreign officials who commit human rights violations. The precedents built up over thirty years of ATS and TVPA litigation since Filartiga provide support for this approach. But the uncertain legal landscape may also suggest that “courts should refrain from creating conflicts with other nations and from resolving contested questions of international law in ways that might create foreign policy problems.” (p.969) Which of these approaches U.S. courts follow will go a long way toward shaping the post-Samantar common law of foreign official immunity.

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Articles, International Human Rights Law, National Security Law, North America
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