U.S. Supreme Court should not let torture cases serve political interests, urges Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

By Haggai Carmon

The ADL submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Supreme Court this month, in which the group asks the Court to be careful when deciding the parameters within which victims of torture abroad can sue their torturers in U.S. courts.

The brief was prompted by Samantar v. Bashe Abdi Yousuf, et al., in which a group of Somalis now living in the United States are seeking reparations in a torture case. They were allegedly tortured by soldiers who were taking their orders from a former Somali government official. The official has claimed immunity under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Although ADL is very clear that “[v]ictims of torture or genocide should unquestionably have access to U.S. courts to pursue justice against their oppressors,” National Director Abraham H. Foxman adds: “We must be cautious, however, that such access does not translate into an open invitation to abuse our court system for political purposes. The Supreme Court must ensure that suits of this nature are judged on their individual merit, while retaining safeguards designed to prevent political manipulation.”

The brief filed by the ADL recognizes that the U.S., as per the norms of international law, should not provide immunity to officials and countries accused of torture and genocide: “because the observance of jus cogens is so universally recognized as vital to the functioning of a community of nations, every nation must (by definition) waive its traditional sovereign immunity for violating such fundamental standards ‘[by] the very fact that it is a state.’”

However, it also asks the Court not to overlook or override doctrines and principles already in place to ensure that such lawsuits do not become the tools of international politics. In instances where legitimate governments and officials are brought to U.S. courts for political purposes, the ADL wants to ensure that case dismissal remains a real option, such as in the cases of unjusticiable political questions, failure to establish a recognized basis for liability, proper defendants, forum non conveniens, an exceeded statute of limitations, etc.

The brief concludes: “Regardless of how the Court decides the question presented, it should maintain the effectiveness of the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991, as previously construed by this Court, in providing justice, and genuine remedies, for those harmed by torture or violations of fundamental human rights abuses while, at the same time, protect the ability of lower courts to dismiss meritless claims brought for political or other improper purposes.”

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