Guest Post: The Evolving Law of Foreign Official Immunity–Mortazavi and Bakhshi, Prince Nasser, and “Samantar II”
[Chimène Keitner is Harry & Lillian Research Chair and Professor of Law at UC Hastings. She is on Twitter @KeitnerLaw.]
I look forward to discussing developments in the international law of non-state actor immunity on a panel on “Responsibility and Immunity in a Time of Chaos” at International Law Weekend this Saturday morning with co-panelists Kristen Boon and August Reinisch, moderated by Larry Johnson. For those of you who can’t attend, we thought we’d offer a taste of our discussion here on Opinio Juris.
In recent years, my research has focused on questions relating to the personal responsibility and ratione materiae immunity of individuals who act on behalf of states. The International Court of Justice has thus far managed to avoid dealing with the subject of ratione materiae immunity. As I recounted on Opinio Juris earlier this year, a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found in Jones v. United Kingdom that the grant of ratione materiae immunity for torture to Saudi officials by the U.K. State Immunity Act (SIA) did not interfere disproportionately with the applicants’ right of access to court.
Jurisprudence in other Commonwealth countries with state immunity acts that resemble the United Kingdom’s has largely tracked the House of Lords’s 2006 judgment in Jones v. Saudi Arabia. In that case, the House of Lords found that the SIA conferred immunity on foreign officials from civil proceedings for torture, even though its 1999 judgment in Pinochet (No. 3) established a lack of such immunity from criminal proceedings. As a matter of statutory interpretation, the distinction between criminal and civil proceedings finds some support in the explicit exclusion of criminal proceedings or prosecutions from the scope of the U.K., Canadian, and Australian state immunity acts. (For more on these cases, see here.) The Canadian Supreme Court’s October 10 judgment in Kazemi and Hashemi v. Islamic Republic of Iran reinforced this bifurcated approach by interpreting the Canadian SIA to provide immunity from civil proceedings to two named officials (Mortazavi and Bakhshi) who allegedly ordered, oversaw, and actively participated in the torture to death of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.
Given the exclusion of criminal proceedings from the scope of the SIA, claims to immunity ratione materiae from prosecution for torture in U.K. courts have followed the different path set out in Pinochet (No. 3). As Oliver Windridge related here at Opinio Juris, the way has been cleared for a criminal investigation into claims that Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the King of Bahrain, was directly involved in the torture of three individuals in a prison in Bahrain. Although some reports indicated that the prince had “lost” his immunity, it would be more accurate to state that the U.K.’s Director of Public Prosecutions ultimately determined that the prince did not benefit from, and never had benefited from, ratione materiae immunity from criminal proceedings for torture. Oliver’s post also notes that, in January 2013, a Nepalese army officer was charged in the U.K. with intentionally inflicting severe pain or suffering as a public official on two individuals during the 2005 civil war in Nepal.
In the United States, the only prosecution for torture to date remains that of Chuckie Taylor, who was sentenced in 2009 to 97 years in prison for torture committed in Liberia. The Torture Victim Protection Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 note, explicitly creates a civil cause of action for torture or extrajudicial killing committed under color of foreign law. Unlike the state immunity acts at issue in the civil cases described above, the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not exclude criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court determined in Samantar v. Yousuf (2010) that the FSIA does not apply to suits against individual officials in their personal capacity that seek damages from the defendant’s “own pockets,” in which the state is not the “real party in interest.” In the absence of a statute, foreign official immunity in U.S. courts is governed by the common law. (For a guide to analyzing immunity claims post-Samantar, see here.)
Curt Bradley and Jack Goldsmith argued against taking a U.S.-style approach to personal capacity vs. official capacity suits in a short article published before Samantar was decided. Although I have taken issue with parts of their historical analysis here, their basic point that different policy considerations are in play in designing domestic immunity regimes and international immunity regimes remains sound. Curt has blogged about post-Samantar cases here, and John Bellinger has been chronicling these developments as well. On October 14, the Supreme Court asked for the Solicitor General’s views on whether to review the Fourth Circuit’s determination on remand that there is no ratione materiae immunity for torture because it is a jus cogens violation.
Much conceptual and historical analysis remains to be done as we await the Solicitor General’s brief and the Supreme Court’s decision about whether to tackle the issue of ratione materiae immunity under the “common law” in Samantar II or a future case. Just as the Court should not transplant domestic immunity doctrines wholesale into the foreign official immunity context, so too should it resist parroting decisions that interpret state immunity acts with fundamentally different structures and provisions. It is more important to resolve these issues properly than it is to resolve them quickly or all at once—especially since, in the U.S. context, the Court’s examination of common law immunity in civil cases could have potentially unintended consequences for criminal proceedings as well.