In a decision that may result in significant diplomatic friction and stoke internal divisions within the Obama administration, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that foreign government officials are not protected from lawsuits for torture and human rights violations by a federal law that provides immunity for foreign governments. The decision, hailed by human rights groups, is likely to encourage more lawsuits in U.S. courts against visiting foreign officials, including Israelis and Chinese. These officials may still enjoy immunity from suit under other legal doctrines, but the State Department will be forced to assert immunity on their behalf. The Obama administration will now be buffeted by competing demands from foreign governments for protection for their officials and from human rights advocates for accountability for human rights abusers.
The case, Samantar v. Yousuf, involved a suit against Mohamed Ali Samantar, a former defense minister and prime minister of Somalia in the 1980s. The suit was filed by a group of Somali nationals who allege that they or their family members were tortured or killed by Somali defense forces commanded by Samantar. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 220-year-old federal law that allows foreign nationals to bring civil suits in U.S. courts for violations of international law.