US Congress has made a mistake in overturning Obama’s veto of Saudi 9/11 bill
Allowing the legislation will have a negative global impact and will open the US to legal retaliation in foreign courts
The duties of legislators are generally to make laws, represent the people, help constituents and perform oversight. Members of the US Congress have ignored some of those by overturning President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow families of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia’s government. Coming in the month of the 15th anniversary of the atrocity and during campaigning for elections on November 8, the decision was as much about politics as justice. But as White House officials said in trying to prevent the move, it will have a negative global impact, particularly on the US.
Suspicions of a high-level Saudi link to September 11 have been rife since it was revealed 15 of the 19 hijackers of the four aircraft that day were from the kingdom. Investigations showing that leading Saudis helped bankroll al-Qaeda, the group behind the attacks, in part prompted the law. There is no more collective emotional issue for Americans than the threat of terrorism, and the legislation was unanimously passed, the aim being to open US courts to civil lawsuits by citizens against foreign governments with Saudi Arabia the specific objective. But no links with the Saudi government or royal family have been found.
Washington’s relationship with Riyadh is already strained over issues including the nuclear deal with Iran and human rights. But the wider implication of the law is that it undermines the legal principle of sovereign immunity, which protects government officials from civil action or criminal prosecution. That was the reasoning Obama gave for his veto last Friday, arguing that it would open the floodgates of legal retaliation in foreign courts and US troops would be particularly vulnerable. Congress thought otherwise and overruled the president.
Lawmakers have to thoroughly study legislation, weighing up the meaning and implications. Those in the US Congress did not do that with the bill and some have only now realised the need for a rethink. But their actions have already caused international concern that could unleash unintended consequences.