The ‘9/11’ bill: Controversy and Consequences

Last month marked the 15th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks which shocked the world and every year the magnitude of the tragic act does not fade. The United States especially has never and will never forget the day, which has been reciprocated in the way the country has conducted itself and its domestic and foreign policies over the years.

Recently, there has been new mass controversy surrounding 9/11 as Congress decided to override President Obama's veto, in which he dismissed the '9/11 bill' officially known as Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA); making it the first presidential veto overridden in Obama's administration.

For Congress to pass an act there must be a 2/3 vote from both the House and the Senate. This is a rare scenario; Congress has only overturned 106 vetoes out of 1,481 bills vetoed by 144 American Presidents. Although 9/11 is not specifically mentioned in the JASTA act, its commonly known across the media as the 9/11 bill due to the fact there has been a longstanding case against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks by the victims, families and others affected by the act of terrorism. The Act had clear intentions to create a legislation which will allow this specific lawsuit to transpire. The decision of Congress has caused huge uproar and there is now question and speculation of what could be the backlash or consequences.

JASTA was first introduced in December 2009 and was officially made legislation on the 23rd September 2016. This Act proposed a bill that amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These previous acts had limitations concerning whether foreign sovereign nations or its subdivisions (which can be political/agencies/instruments etc.) can be sued in the US. Beforehand, United States citizens could only sue a foreign state if it was concluded that the state funded the act of terrorism directly. In International Law, state and sovereign immunity exists in foreign and domestic courts. This immunity declares a restriction which prevents a country being sued in a foreign nation's courts. The sovereign or state cannot commit a 'legal wrong' and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution.

JASTA broadens civil claims in the area of terrorism as the act declares 'it authorizes federal court jurisdiction over a civil claim against a foreign state for physical injury to a person or property or death that occurs inside the United States' as a result of: (1) an act of international terrorism, and (2) a tort committed anywhere by an official, agent, or employee of a foreign state acting within the scope of employment.'

In shorthand the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Acts concludes that federal courts have the right of personal jurisdiction over any foreign state's support for an individual's act of international terrorism against a United States national or property; regardless if such state is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism or not. JASTA creates an exception to the doctrine of "sovereign immunity," which holds that one country cannot be sued in another country's courts.

It is easy to detect why a divide in the United States arose on whether JASTA should be passed as law. President Obama quickly dismissed the bill through his right of Presidential veto, stating although he had 'deep sympathy' for the victims and loved ones of the 9/11 attacks, approving the legalisation would disturb his Presidential duty to operate foreign policies. It is well known that the United States and Saudi Arabia have an ongoing partnership and remain a close relationship. When King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, President Obama released a statement declaring him a 'leader', stating that "the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.' Saudi and the U.S are frequent traders with the latest (2012) data of goods and services trades between the two nations totalling at $81 billion.

The nations’ relationship is also crucial to how the US operates itself in the Middle East. In March 2015, Obama declared that he had authorised U.S. forces to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Saudis in their military intervention in Yemen, establishing a "Joint Planning Cell" with Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, President Obama added how JASTA would not protect Americans from terrorism in the future or improve their effectiveness of response to attacks. White House officials agreed with Obama's stance, highlighting how the bill could backfire against the US if countries wish to retaliate and strip the US of its own sovereign immunity.

Saudi Arabia responded to this legislation affirming how the act could be dangerous to their long distance relationship which could result in detrimental consequences.

The Minister of State, Cabinet's Member, and Acting Minister of Culture and Information Dr. Essam bin Saad bin Saeed stressed in a statement to Saudi Press Agency 'the adoption of "JASTA" Law in the United States of America is of great concern to the international community in which international relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, the principle governing international relations for hundreds of years.' The issue that the US's sovereign immunity is jeopardised due to the Act, was reinforced. The fact that JASTA could backfire on the US was made clear.

The approval of JASTA, more infamously known as the 9/11 bill is one that raises major questions and sparks huge interest across the world. The most pressing question is what its consequences could be.

During a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, a member of the Obama administration a US treasury secretary warned there could be ‘’serious implications’ for US-Gulf interests, for allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia. Jacob Lew made these broad comments in a meeting involving finance ministers from the top gulf nations (including Saudi) this month. The bill has the power to maim the strong financial bond the two superpowers share.

Furthermore, some British, French and Dutch lawmakers have threatened ‘retaliatory legislation’ against the United States itself, showing how JASTSA can have a major negative repercussions for the US; causing a legal domino effect and completely changing the world and sovereign immunity as it is known today.

9/11 was an awful event which changed the course of world history forever, but in an uncertain world, it is short-sighted and unwise to have approved this bill. As the Obama administration has recognised and as the world knows, although 9/11 was a terrible and unthinkable act of evil, there are ways to punish those that commit 'horrendous acts’ without ‘undermining important legal principles’.

Every country, including ‘superpowers’ like Russia and the United States need allies to function and retain power. The 9/11 bill has the power to leave the United States in fact more vulnerable and susceptible to harm.

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