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
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
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. …