Who Did It?

Who shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago? Was Russia involved? Was Saudi Arabia involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States? Can the families of the victims sue Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot? 


Current headlines pinpoint the legal and political importance of these questions. In the case of the Malaysian Airlines, a Dutch-led international investigation reported that a surface-to-air missile system used to shoot down the plane came from Russia. The team of prosecutors used substantial evidence to prove Russia’s role in the attack on Flight MH17. The investigation also heavily criticized the Russian government for covering up its involvement.

As for the Saudi involvement in September 11, the United States Congress has passed into law a bill that would allow the families of the victims to sue Saudi Arabia for any involvement in the plot. The overwhelming vote (97-1 in the Senate and 348-77 in the House) overrode a veto by President Obama. The concept of sovereign immunity, a legal principle that protects foreign countries and their diplomats from prosecution in the United States, has been customarily respected.

Arguing that the vote would set a dangerous precedent, Obama said; “I think it was a mistake, and I understand why it happened. It’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard and frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard.” The President’s argument was that the bill would open the possibility for the United States to face lawsuits in foreign courts.

Why do we want to know who was responsible? The simple answer is that we all have an innate sense of justice. When punished or scolded, little children often say; “That’s not fair.”

After establishing the cause and effect of an illegal act, we want to punish those who can be proven guilty. In legal terms, we impute responsibility for an act to someone. But in both cases it is the governments of countries who are being called into question. State responsibility is one of the most elusive subjects in international law. Numerous reports have been written by commissions, but no definitive answer has appeared. The International Criminal Court is for individuals, not for governments.

For example, in the case of suing corporations, the difficulty in pinpointing those responsible can be elusive. In a famous case in New Zealand, the judge found it was the organigram of the company which led to the fault. No one individual was held responsible for the crash. In a classic article on corporate responsibility, Columbia Professor John C. Coffee Jr. chose as his title: “No Soul to Damn: No Body to Kick: An Unscandalized Inquiry into the Problem of Corporate Punishment.”

In addition, it is not exactly clear what the legal basis of litigation might be. Where would the trial take place? Based on what law? What court of law can investigate the Russian government’s involvement in the downing of the plane?

Having said all of the above, there is, nevertheless, a certain feeling of satisfaction in knowing that someone was responsible for the downing of the plane (it also helps that it was a current foe like Russia) and that eventually we may find out what was behind the 9/11 attacks. Some sense of justice will be fulfilled. We want to know who is responsible, who is to blame, who is to punish, just as we want to know who is to praise when something succeeds.

This sense of justice is very emotional. From where it comes we are not sure. “Justice” has become the most popular course at Harvard University, taught by Michael Sandel. Through online courses, it has become a global phenomenon. But there are relatively few similar courses throughout academia, outside law schools and philosophy departments. While we often talk about what we feel is just or unjust, we rarely analyze from where that feeling comes.

The two headlines certainly create a feeling of satisfaction that wrongs will be punished. But, daily, illegal bombs are being dropped on innocent civilians in Syria. Where is a sense of justice there? Perhaps, our emotional sense of justice is subjective and often relativized for those we want to punish and those we want to blame. There is no definitive way to measure justice. For beyond the rule of law, there are feelings of what is just and what is unjust. And those feelings are rarely universal. 

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