'Global Justice' May Rewrite US Law Books ; Two Civil Cases Help Put US at Vanguard of Universal Law. but Officials Remain Wary

Article excerpt

A new round of lawsuits is testing America's willingness to be part of a global justice system.

For the past decade, the United States has been confronted with the concept of "universal jurisdiction": whether, for example, a foreign citizen can be punished in the US for a crime committed elsewhere. The debate gained new intensity globally last year, when dictator Augusto Pinochet was indicted by a Spanish judge and detained in Britain for crimes allegedly committed while he ruled Chile.

Now two civil cases in New York federal courthouses test similar legal waters for the US. Experts say such cases are helping create a global legal system in which international criminals cannot hide from justice.

Yet American officials are generally hesitant to embrace the concept of universal jurisdiction in criminal cases, worried about loss of US sovereignty or retaliation by other nations.

But in civil cases, "US courts have been at the vanguard," says Diane Orentlicher, an international-law expert at American University in Washington.

In one of the current cases, a group of Muslim women and children from Bosnia are suing Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb military leader accused of committing war crimes in Bosnia during the early 1990s. They want millions of dollars to compensate for the actions of the army under Mr. Karadzic's command, which allegedly committed genocide, rape, and torture.

The second case was brought by the family of an Israeli-American man who was killed during a 1996 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Named in the suit are two Syrian military officials, the Syrian defense minister, and the leader of Syrian forces in Lebanon. The family of the victim alleges that the Syrians provided training and resources to help the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas carry out the attack.

In both cases the defendants deny the charges, and it is unlikely that they will appear in court. Even if a jury penalizes the defendants in absentia, it is improbable that the victims or victims' families will ever collect damages - unless there are assets in the US that can be seized.

Still, such an outcome, alongside the Pinochet case, could push forward the concept of a global legal system.

On Tuesday, Chile's Supreme Court lifted General Pinochet's immunity from prosecution, opening the way for the former dictator (now back in Chile) to be tried on human rights charges.

Universal language of law?

In the US, the legal system is coming under increasing pressure to address this new type of global justice. …