Last week, a U.S. District Court issued a judgement ordering the Syrian government to pay $302.5 million to the family of slain journalist Marie Colvin, sparking considerable discussion among Syrians about the meaning and implications of the court order. War correspondent Marie Colvin was one of the only foreign journalists reporting out of the besieged city of Homs in February 2012, when she was killed by a Syrian government attack. In 2016, Colvin’s family filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the Syrian government had purposefully targeted Colvin as part of a broader campaign to target reporters. SJAC recently spoke with Carmen Cheung, Legal Director at the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), the organization that conducted a large portion of the investigation into Colvin’s death, to better understand the details of the case and what it could mean for Syrian victims. Some of her thoughts have been incorporated below.
What role has CJA played in the Colvin case?
CJA led the five-year investigation into the Colvin case, and in July 2016, they filed the case in conjunction with co-counsel Sherman & Sterling LLP on behalf of Marie Colvin’s family in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
How was Colvin’s family able to sue the Syrian government?
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allows for U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments for crimes including wrongful death and terrorist acts if the foreign government in question is classified as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The Colvin family successfully argued that the killing of Marie Colvin was an extrajudicial execution and therefore falls into the category of “wrongful death.”
How was the $302.5 million figure determined?
The $302.5 million award included $2.5 million to cover funeral costs and emotional damages to Colvin’s sister. The majority of the award, $300 million, was for punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to act as a form of punishment for the accused. While judges typically award $150 million in punitive damages for individual deaths, they can award more in cases where the victim was targeted for a particular reason – in Colvin’s case, because she was a journalist.
Why didn’t Colvin’s family pursue criminal charges?
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) does not allow for criminal charges, and in the US legal system, bringing a civil case does not trigger a criminal investigation.
Will the Syrian government really pay the Colvin family?
The Syrian government will most likely not pay the Colvin family directly. Pursuing frozen Syrian government assets may be an option for securing the payments. A previous case in 2014 enabled American victims of ISIS crimes to receive $82 million from frozen Syrian government assets held in the United States. However, as most remaining assets are now held abroad, the Colvin family would likely need to pursue the enforcement of the judgement in a third country. A judge in a third country would first consider whether the same lawsuit could be brought before the courts in that country, as judges are unlikely to enforce judgements that have no parallel in the local court system. The options for this are narrow; most countries do not have provisions allowing their citizens to sue a foreign state, and most countries also do not allow for punitive damages. It is possible that the Colvin family will never receive any of the funds.
Are Syrian victims of government violations able to pursue similar cases?
The options for Syrian victims to pursue similar cases are limited. In order to bring a case under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a Syrian would have needed to hold US citizenship at the time the crime was committed. Additionally, the number of crimes covered by the FSIA is limited to personal injury or death caused by one the following means: torture, extrajudicial killing, hostage-taking, or aircraft sabotage. However, other options do exist for Syrians to pursue justice in court. Many European nations have universal jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, potentially giving Syrians living in Europe the option to try to pursue both criminal and civil cases in court.
Ultimately, the Colvin case still carries some importance, even if the family is never able to recover the funds and Syrians are not able to utilize the same path to justice. The Colvin judgement relied not only on an investigation of Colvin’s killing, but also on the broader Syrian government policy of targeting and killing journalists. This case and others like it can help to establish a historical record of crimes committed during the conflict, which could contribute greatly to post-conflict transitional justice and reconciliation processes.