It’s an unwritten law of international relations that some lives matter while others don’t matter at all. In practice this means that some people – or peoples – can be killed with complete impunity by more powerful states, while civilians or even servicemen from countries higher up the pecking order cannot be killed by countries lower down the hierarchy.
An example of this tendency can be found in the latest Iran sanctions bill, known as the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which was signed off by President Obama on 10 August.
According to Reuters, the bill contains a little-known clause pertaining to a 2007 lawsuit for compensatory damages against Iran, that was awarded to families of the 300 Marines blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Beirut in October 1983, by an early incarnation of the Shia-based Lebanese Resistance.
The Marines were in Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force deployed in Lebanon, following the bloody Israeli invasion the previous year – an invasion that was supported by the US and cost an estimated 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian lives.
Peacekeeping was only one objective in a broader attempt by the Reagan administration to prop up a pro-Israeli Maronite administration in Lebanon against the wishes of the radicalized Shia population. The attack on the Marine barracks effectively ended those efforts. When the multinational forces withdrew from Lebanon in February 1984, the US battleship New Jersey indiscriminately shelled Shia mountain villages for nine hours – an act of pure vengeance whose human cost has never been counted.
Few Americans were aware of that bombardment at the time, and few recall it now. But many remember the US Marines as innocent victims of an act of ‘terrorism’ perpetrated by Hezbollah and Iran.
In 2007 a US court awarded $2.6 billion in compensatory damages to families of the slain Marines. In 2008, the US government became aware $1.75 billion in Iranian assets held by a New York branch of Citibank, which the Central Bank of Iran insisted belonged to Iran.
Lawyers for the Beirut plaintiffs immediately sought to have these funds diverted to contribute towards the damages awarded to them. Iran insisted that these funds could not be transferred and evoked the principle of sovereign immunity, under which the agents of one state are not subject to the laws of a foreign power.
When that foreign power is the United States however, the law is an elastic and malleable instrument, and the new bill contains a clause which effectively overrules the sovereign immunity principle.
Not only does it declare that the Central Bank of Iran ‘is not immune’ under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, but it has explicitly stated that ‘financial assets that are identified’ in the Manhattan case ‘shall be subject to execution or attachment … to satisfy any judgment to the extent of any compensatory damages awarded against Iran.’
According to Reuters, this legal ‘tweak’ may now enable the $1.76 billion to be shared amongst families of the Beirut Marines, and also amongst relatives of the 1996 bombing of the US military complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 soldiers and injured nearly 400.
It’s worth noting that Iranian involvement in either of these attacks has yet to be proven. Not many countries would seek compensatory damages against a country on the mere suspicion of involvement in killing its servicemen, and even fewer would stand a chance of actually obtaining them.
But America’s privileged position in the international system means that it can do what it likes, and demand a level of justice for its own citizens that is conspicuously absent for the victims of its own military operations.
In 1996 the US government paid reparations to the families of the 290 passenger on the Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by the missile cruiser USS Vincennes in July 1988, following a decision by the International Court of Justice.
But the US government has never apologized or admitted responsibility for wrongdoing, and the prevailing official attitude was summed up by George H.R Bush in 1988, who told Newsweek ‘I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.’
These reparations are a rarity. The US has never paid compensation to the Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange, which may have killed or maimed 400,000 people directly, in addition to the 500,000 children born with physical defects and two million people who have suffered cancers or other illnesses.
Though US veterans affected by Agent Orange have received $180-million, in 2008 a US court rejected a billion dollar lawsuit from Vietnamese families against the manufacturers of Agent Orange.
Residents of Fallujah are unlikely to be able to claim damages for the rash of congenital birth defects that continue to take place in the city, nearly eight years after the two sieges of 2004.
The New York Times recently reported that US sanctions against Iran may have cost the lives of more than 1, 700 passengers and crew, as a result of their inability to buy spare parts and new planes to upgrade Iran’s aging passenger fleet.
Should Iranian courts ‘award compensatory damages for these deaths and seek to obtain them from the US government? Will the relatives of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan now seek redress in Pakistani courts, and will the US government or the ‘international community’ pay the slightest attention if they do?
In your dreams, reader, in your dreams. Because in this world, decisions about damages and compensation for the most part have little to do with universally-applicable legal standards or respect for human life.
On the contrary, such decisions are ultimately dictated by power not justice. And the US government’s ‘tweaking’ of the law to favour the Beirut plaintiffs has nothing to do with justice or ‘threat reduction’, but to a desire for vengeance and a determination to further punish, weaken and undermine a geopolitical rival.