Finding the Tort of Terrorism in International Law
99 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2009 Last revised: 2 Apr 2009
Date Written: January 21, 2009
This Article - part of a symposium on civil litigation and terrorism - focuses on the potential of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) to serve as a vehicle for asserting civil claims in U.S. courts for acts of terrorism. Although this paper primarily considers terrorism torts under the "law of nations" prong of the ATS (which requires a showing that the relevant prohibition is part of customary international law), terrorism torts may provide a vehicle for activating the ATS's dormant treaty prong as well, given the strong support for the terrorism treaties exhibited by the United States and the high degree of domestic incorporation of the crimes identified therein. One of the first modern cases to be filed under the Alien Tort Statute, Tel-Oran v. Libyan Arab Republic, immediately called into question the utility of the ATS as a counter-terrorism tool. Ever since, the statute has been relatively underutilized in this context, even while U.S. courts have gradually extended jurisdiction under the ATS over other international crimes. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has vastly expanded opportunities for U.S. nationals to pursue civil claims in domestic courts for acts of terrorism. For example, the Antiterrorism Act (ATA) enables U.S. nationals - as well as their estates, survivors, and heirs - to sue individuals responsible for personal, property, or business injuries incurred by reason of acts of international terrorism. U.S. victims and claimants may also sue states and state agents implicated in acts of terrorism under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA), so long as the state itself has been specifically designated as a "sponsor of terrorism" by the Department of State or where the circumstances otherwise satisfy one of the codified exceptions to foreign sovereign immunity. As compared with these statutory causes of action for U.S. citizen victims and claimants, only the ATS has the potential to provide jurisdiction over civil claims arising out of acts of terrorism brought by non-nationals who have access to U.S. courts. This paper argues that the uncertainty surrounding the availability of the ATS to permit such terrorism claims reveals a lacuna in the United States' anti-terrorism statutory scheme.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain and finally set forth a methodology for considering actionable claims under the ATS, a few cases involving terrorism allegations have begun to work their way through the federal court system. Although it is still difficult to draw broad conclusions, the existing cases do demonstrate that the various federal statutes - the ATA, FSIA, and ATS - can work in tandem to provide causes of action to alien and U.S. plaintiffs injured in terrorist incidents. Furthermore, litigants are creatively utilizing multiple causes of action drawn from statutes, the common law, and international law to press their claims. While the federal courts have yet to definitively recognize a standalone cause of action for terrorism stricto sensu, developments in the law of terrorism at the international level reveal the gradual crystallization of a consensus set of elements that comprise a definitive prohibition against terrorism applicable to all but a narrow set of circumstances. What lingering definitional impasse exists highlights an unsettled and highly contentious area of international law: the legal categorization and consequences of attacks by unprivileged combatants against privileged combatants or military targets. In all other situations, the international law governing acts of terrorism is sufficiently precise, robust, and uncontroversial to support the recognition by the federal courts of a cause of action for terrorism under the ATS, assuming the other jurisdictional requirements are satisfied. Recognizing such causes of action will bolster the United States' counter-terrorism regime by enabling a broader array of victims of acts of terror to pursue the assets of individuals and groups that finance or otherwise support acts of terrorism.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation