A new round of lawsuits is testing America's willingness to be part of a global justice system.
For the past decade, the United States has been confronted with the concept of "universal jurisdiction": whether, for example, a foreign citizen can be punished in the US for a crime committed elsewhere. The debate gained new intensity globally last year, when dictator Augusto Pinochet was indicted by a Spanish judge and detained in Britain for crimes allegedly committed while he ruled Chile.
Now two civil cases in New York federal courthouses test similar legal waters for the US. Experts say such cases are helping create a global legal system in which international criminals cannot hide from justice.
Yet American officials are generally hesitant to embrace the concept of universal jurisdiction in criminal cases, worried about loss of US sovereignty or retaliation by other nations.
But in civil cases, "US courts have been at the vanguard," says Diane Orentlicher, an international-law expert at American University in Washington.
In one of the current cases, a group of Muslim women and children from Bosnia are suing Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb military leader accused of committing war crimes in Bosnia during the early 1990s. They want millions of dollars to compensate for the actions of the army under Mr. Karadzic's command, which allegedly committed genocide, rape, and torture.
The second case was brought by the family of an Israeli-American man who was killed during a 1996 terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Named in the suit are two Syrian military officials, the Syrian defense minister, and the leader of Syrian forces in Lebanon. The family of the victim alleges that the Syrians provided training and resources to help the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas carry out the attack.
In both cases the defendants deny the charges, and it is unlikely that they will appear in court. Even if a jury penalizes the defendants in absentia, it is improbable that the victims or victims' families will ever collect damages - unless there are assets in the US that can be seized.
Still, such an outcome, alongside the Pinochet case, could push forward the concept of a global legal system.
On Tuesday, Chile's Supreme Court lifted General Pinochet's immunity from prosecution, opening the way for the former dictator (now back in Chile) to be tried on human rights charges.
Universal language of law?
In the US, the legal system is coming under increasing pressure to address this new type of global justice. Yet, so far the government has not explicitly taken a comprehensive position that balances civil and criminal law.
"The US has been inconsistent in its approach," says Bruce Broomhall of the International Justice Lawyers Committee. "Sometimes they're in favor of [universal jurisdiction], sometimes they're against it."
US lags in criminal law
Mr. Broomhall and other human rights advocates say that the US is lagging behind other advanced Western countries when it comes to international criminal law. US law allows the pursuit only of civil cases.
Countries such as Canada, Germany, Belgium, and South Africa are expected to make new laws for criminal prosecution soon. Other European countries have already passed such laws or are expected to follow suit.
In the US, civil cases are based on two different laws. One allows American terrorism victims to sue sponsoring countries for compensation. That law is being used in the case against Syria.
Another, the Alien Torts Claim Act, allows aliens to sue in US federal court if acts were committed against them in violation of the law of nations or a US treaty.
It has already been used once against a Bosnian Serb in 1998, and is being used against Karadzic.
Protecting US sovereignty
Yet, when it comes to criminal law, US officials are hesitant to lend their support. The concern is that, if the US allows for criminal prosecution of crimes committed abroad, other countries could retaliate against the US.
A similar principle exists with diplomatic immunity.
"It's necessary to prevent the harassment of American dignitaries overseas," says Brett Scaefer of the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
International criminal laws also touch on the sensitive issue of sovereignty. Those concerns have prevented the US from making a commitment to an international criminal court, which is in the process of being formed with the support of most US allies. Republican lawmakers worry that if the US were to participate in the court, other countries would gain a hand in US foreign policy.
Yet, some US officials are eager to pursue prosecution of other nationals.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida, has been urging various governments to arrest Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for "crimes against humanity." The Castro regime has been accused of several kinds of human rights violations, including torture. But Castro rarely leaves Cuba.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society