The Marie Colvin Case: Difficulties Holding Foreign Nations Accountable

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By Gabriella Marki

After dedicating her life to reporting the truth on the front lines of wars and battlefields, war correspondent Marie Colvin was brutally killed in the Baba Amr neighborhood within the city of Homs, Syria in February 2012.[1] Four years after her death, Cathleen Colvin, the sister of Marie Colvin, along with Scott Gilmore of Sharman & Sterling LLP and the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), sued the Syrian Arab Republic in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, asserting that Marie Colvin’s death falls under the category of an extrajudicial killing.[2] Therefore, they argue that the murder constituted a violation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949.[3] While foreign governments typically are immune from suit in United States courts for actions outside of the United States’ jurisdiction, the plaintiffs argued their claim under the FSIA’s exception for foreign governments listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism . . .”[4] While Colvin prevailed in her suit against Syria, questions arise as to how Syria will properly award Colvin the damages owed.

The complaint alleged that the Assad regime used informants to spy on and track foreign journalists who wrote articles contrary to the benefit of the regime, and it urged that Syria be held responsible for the extrajudicial killing of Marie Colvin.[5] After nearly two years of trying to serve the defendant, Syria, to no avail, the clerk of the court entered default and the plaintiffs moved for default judgment.[6] On January 30, 2019, the District Court held Syria liable for Marie Colvin’s death and awarded Colvin’s family $302.5 million: $2.5 million constituting solatium damages and $300 million constituting punitive damages based on the regime’s targeted violence against journalists.[7]

How the damages will be collected is unknown. It has taken plaintiffs years of meticulous work and “financial forensics” to collect their damages in similar cases, but even so, this collection could require congressional intervention.[8] Notably, and most recently, a plaintiff who won a suit against the Iranian government was awarded damages through Congressional intervention.[9] The Central Bank of Iran transferred $40 million it owed in damages through the enforcement of the Congress’s asset seizure and subsequent distribution.[10] Yet, this transfer of assets is not always possible and has been regarded as somewhat controversial as a potential violation of the separation of powers.[11]

While it is unknown how Colvin will collect the damages, the significance of this opinion and decision will be forever potent, as it successfully reveals uncontestable evidence of the workings behind the regime.[12] Additionally, it demonstrates the United States’ position in in how it will interpret the FSIA in protecting its own citizens, particularly journalists, as well as fulfill its obligations under international law and treaties. However, what is the application of the FSIA if a foreign state’s actions do not qualify under a certain exception? What happens when, despite the commission of various atrocities, the foreign state remains untouched by the demand for justice? What are the other options outside of the domestic judicial area that allow for some measures of accountability? 

One of the most notable is the International Court of Justice.[13] The International Court of Justice, for example, provides one option to enforce state responsibility. While this court does not have criminal jurisdiction, it often works under advisory jurisdiction to evaluate disputes between sovereign states with compelling issues.[14] Often, the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction for hearing these cases are determined after the violation of a certain international treaty.[15] Most recently, the International Court of Justice released a 2012 opinion on a proceeding brought by Belgium against Senegal in which Belgium alleged a violation to the Convention Against Torture.[16] The International Court of Justice held each State has a common interest in their human right treaties and must abide by them.[17] However, current conflicts, such as the one in Syria, are a keen demonstration of the various ways a state is able to completely disregard its human rights treaties and other internationally-accepted norms.[18]

Another important example is the International Criminal Court. The biggest issue, however, has been finding a state willing to prosecute another state as members of the International Criminal Court—an issue with the structure of the United Nations and international structures generally.[19] This tension creates difficulty enforcing international treaties, as well as upholding accountability, responsibility, and allegiance to human rights.[20] Often, the ICC is able to prosecute these individuals only after the issuance of an international warrant and the individual’s presence in a state willing to cooperate with the warrant.[21]

In this case, the likelihood that Ms. Colvin and her family will immediately collect damages is low. Determining how a foreign government will award its damages to the prevailing party is crucial. It not only serves as a significant deterrent, but also provides, at the very least, a small piece of mind that justice was served.


[1] Lindsey Hilsum, In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin 5 (2018).

[2] Complaint at ¶¶ 1-15, Cathleen Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, 2016 WL 3683468 (D.D.C. July 9, 2016) (No. 1:16-cv-01423); see also Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, Pub. L. No. 102-256, § 3(a) (1992); 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(h)(7) (defining extrajudicial killing as the “deliberated killing not authorized by a previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples” and “does not include any such killing that, under international law, is lawfully carried out under the authority of a foreign nation”).

[3] 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602, 1605; complaint at ¶¶ 88-90. 

[4] See 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(a)(1) (defining the terrorism exception “[a] foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States . . . in which money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking, or the provision of material support or resources for such an act if such act or provision of material support or resources is engaged in by an official, employee, or agent of such foreign state while acting within the scope of his or her office, employment, or agency”); 28 U.S.C. § 1605A(h)(6) (defining a state sponsor of terrorism as “a country the government of which the Secretary of State has determined . . . is a government that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism”); see also State Sponsors of Terrorism, U.S. Dep’t of Statehttps://www.state.gov/j/ct/list/c14151.htm (last visited Feb. 17, 2019) (listing Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism since December 29, 1979).

[5] Complaint at ¶¶ 23-79.

[6] Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No. CV 16-1423 (ABJ), 2019 WL 416462, at *5 (D.D.C. Feb. 1, 2019).

[7] Id. at *12-17 (“By perpetrating a directing attack against the Media Center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent. A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous, and therefore a punitive damages award that multiplies the impact on the responsible state is warranted. This is particularly true given that Syria itself carried out the attack – it did not fund a third-party terrorist organization to do so. Considering all these circumstances, this Court will award $300 million in punitive damages to plaintiffs.”).

[8] Susan Kostal, Iran Terror Victims Receive First Payments; Will This Affect Foreign Immunity?, ABA Journal (Mar. 2017), http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/iran_terror_victims_receive_first_payments.

[9] Id.

[10] Id

[11] See Haim Abraham, Awarding Punitive Damages Against Foreign States Is Dangerous and Counterproductive, Lawfare (Mar. 1, 2019), https://www.lawfareblog.com/awarding-punitive-damages-against-foreign-states-dangerous-and-counterproductive.

[12] See Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No. CV 16-1423 (ABJ), 2019 WL 416462, at *17 (D.D.C. Feb. 1, 2019).

[13] See Eric A. Posner, Transnational Legal Process and the Supreme Court’s 2003-2004 Term: Some Skeptical Observations, 12 Tulsa J. Comp. & Int’l L.23, 32 (2004) (stating “[t]he ICJ is the most prominent and prestigious of the international courts”).

[14] Ian Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law690-92 (6th ed. 2003).

[15] See id.

[16] Questions Relating to the Obligation to Prosecute or Extradite (Belgium v. Senegal), Judgment, 2012 I.C.J. Rep. 422 (July 20).

[17] Id.

[18] See Beth Van Schaack, Syria, J’Accuse! Syrian State Responsibility for War Crimes, Just Security (July 13, 2016), https://www.justsecurity.org/32009/syria-jaccuse-syrian-state-responsibility-war-crimes/.

[19] See, e.g.,Tom White, States ‘Failing to Seize Sudan’s Dictator Despite Genocide Charge,’The Guardian (Oct. 21, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/21/omar-bashir-travels-world-despite-war-crime-arrest-warrant.

[20] See id.

[21] Id.