A 217 year-old-law, the Alien Tort Statute, permits foreign citizens to bring lawsuits in U.S. federal courts stemming from human rights violations that occurred anywhere in the world. Last year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggests that the law permits only foreign victims of the most egregious human rights violations (genocide, slavery) to file under its auspices. One standard it raised is whether the lawsuits stem from violations of norms accepted by "civilized nations."
This ruling has practical consequences in the trial of the Jordan-based Arab Bank, which is being sued in a federal court in Brooklyn by thousands of Israelis stating that the bank financed terrorism by paying the relatives of suicide bombers. Defense lawyers argue that terrorism against Israel violates no "international norms." They point to some 80 countries, mostly Muslim or African, that consider Palestinian Arab suicide bombers not to be terrorists. Whether the plaintiffs have standing in the federal courts has nothing to do with "whatever we think here in Brooklyn" but depends only on global attitudes toward the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The plaintiffs respond that whether or not some countries condone Palestinian suicide bombers is irrelevant. "We have a bank in New York paying bounties on the bodies of dead civilians. … It would be a remarkable ruling for the court to conclude that the widespread and systematic killing of civilians was not a violation of international law."
Comment: That would indeed be remarkable. I shall report on the outcome of this pretrial debate. (August 1, 2006)