Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Court Dismisses Int'l Law Torture Claims Against Rumsfeld

The U.S. District Court for Washington D.C. has dismissed most of a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and various high-level military officials alleging responsibility for detainee abuse in Guantanamo Bay. The plaintiffs are four UK nationals who were detained, and then released, by the U.S. authorities in Guantanamo. They have now sued for damages in Rasul v. Rumsfeld (not on the DC Court's website yet but available on Westlaw at 2006 WL 266570).

The case represents a clear victory for the U.S. government in its litigation over the war on terrorism and, if followed, would bar almost all of the lawsuits seeking tort damages against U.S. government officials for violation of international law.

The plaintiffs here alleged that Rumsfeld et. al. violated international law in the form of customary international law and also in the form of treaties like the Geneva Convention. The Court did not resolve those issues, but instead dismissed the case on the grounds that Rumsfeld et. al. were entitled to the protections of sovereign immunity under U.S. statutory law since defendants were acting within the scope of their employment. In effect, the Court is holding that as long as the U.S. government substitutes itself for individual defendants in cases challenging official conduct, those U.S. government officials are immune from any claim of violation of international law.

The court went on to find qualified immunity for the plaintiffs' constitutional claims. It did, however, ask for more briefing to consider whether the defendants have immunity from a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

All in all, the decision appears to be right and it confirms for me that many of the lawsuits against U.S. government officials for violations of international law (what I've called the "Third Wave" of Alien Tort Statute lawsuits) face serious obstacles. Still, I fully expect an appeal and given the lack of clear precedent on these issues, it is still possible (but not likely) that the appeals court will find an exception to sovereign immunity for serious violations of international law.


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