Countries have enjoyed the privilege and protection of sovereign immunity, the legally binding principle that protects independent nations from the jurisdiction of foreign courts. Although this doctrine has been taken for granted throughout history, human rights activists have recently called into question its validity, arguing that its application to our present society might be more anachronistic than relevant. Sovereign immunity grants foreign countries broad protection from lawsuits in other countries’ courtrooms. However, changing attitudes in regards to international relations might bring an end to sovereign immunity’s international application. The U.S., which operates in virtually every country in the world, passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA); essentially, its passage enables the United States to more easily hold countries accountable for damages within the U.S. or to their citizens. However, this Act’s passage might bring with it the weakening of the U.S. on the global stage, and consequently a more unstable atmosphere of international relations. The enactment of this legislation threatens the current protections sovereign countries currently enjoy, but the potential for other countries to use lawsuits as a means of legal warfare might thwart the attempts to move away from sovereign immunity.
JASTA swiftly passed through both houses of Congress with no significant opposition, a rarity for today’s political atmosphere. Both houses of Congress utilized a voice vote in passing the bill. This bill was the first under former President Barack Obama’s administration that went into effect after a presidential veto. The bill was passed into law on September 28, 2016, only a few months prior to the end of Obama’s last term in office. Congress’s motivation behind the bill was to allow civil lawsuits, both new and longstanding, to be brought by victims and family members of the September 11th attacks. Congress wanted to guarantee Saudi Arabia and its government's alleged role in the terrorist attacks did not go unpunished, and the victims left without justice.
Sovereign immunity, is an important legal doctrine that protects countries from suit in another foreign nation. Immunity from civil or criminal suits is the primary purpose of sovereign immunity. Exempting a sovereign state from the jurisdiction of foreign national courts is imperative for countries such as the United States to be able to conduct themselves globally without the threat of persecution for every misstep or potential damage they might cause to foreign peoples or property.
Under international law, sovereign immunity is customary, unless a nation is engaging in commercial activity, which resulted in damage to another nation or their citizens. Countries are mostly immune from legal proceedings in a foreign state under international law. The United States first recognized sovereign immunity in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA).