Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2010

Keywords

sovereign immunity, alien tort statute, FSIA

Abstract

For thirty years, international human rights litigation in U.S. courts has developed with little attention to a lurking doctrinal objection to the entire enterprise. The paradigm international human rights case involves a suit against a foreign government official for alleged abuses committed abroad under color of state law. A potentially dispositive objection to this litigation is foreign sovereign immunity. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) creates presumptive immunity for foreign states and has no exception that would cover human rights cases. Many courts have assumed that the FSIA has no relevance to human rights suits as long as they are directed against state officials rather than the state itself. Recently, however, courts have begun to reject this assumption, and the issue is now before the Supreme Court in Yousuf v. Samantar. This essay makes two contributions to the debate over whether the FSIA applies to suits against individual foreign officials. First, it shows that, contrary to what some courts have assumed, suits against individual officials fall naturally within the plain language of the FSIA’s immunity provisions. Second, it shows that the international law of state immunity, which is relevant to the proper interpretation of the FSIA in several ways, supports this construction. Combining these and other points, the essay concludes that the FSIA confers presumptive immunity in suits against state officials, including former state officials, for their official acts committed while in office, and that this immunity applies even in human rights cases. This conclusion, if accepted, would narrow the scope of human rights litigation in U.S. courts, but it would not affect other legitimate mechanisms of human rights accountability.