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Hanoch Tel-Oren, et al., v. Libyan Arab Republic, et al.

Court United States District Court for the District of Columbia, United States
Case number 81-0563, 81-0564
Decision title Memorandum Opinion and Order
Decision date 30 June 1981
  • Hanoch Tel-Oren, and others
  • Libyan Arab Republic
  • Palestine Liberation Organization
  • Palestine Information Office
  • National Association of Arab Americans
  • Palestine Congress of North America
Categories Torture
Keywords torture, universal jurisdiction
Other countries involved
  • Libya
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After the ‘Coastal Road Massacre’ of 11 March 1978 in Israel, the injured victims of the attack and relatives of the deceased attempted to take legal action in the United States against several non-state organisations and Libya, which they considered responsible for the attack and which they considered guilty of torture.

The District Court did not assess the merits, as the Court held, most importantly, that the relevant provisions of international law did not provide the plaintiffs with the possibility to take legal action. In several parts of the opinion, the Court clearly stated its opinion that it is not up to the federal courts to judge on claims arising under international law, unless an international legal provision grants a private right to sue. A federal court should not be a substitute for an international tribunal and the judiciary should not interfere with foreign affairs and international relations, according to the Court.

Also, the Court held that too much time had passed since the attack to take the matter to court. Thus, the plaintiffs’ action was dismissed.  

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Procedural history

Two civil actions were filed against the Libyan Arab Republic (Libya), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestine Information Office (PIO), the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) and the Palestine Congress of North America (PCNA). A suit was filed for compensatory and punitive damages by personal representatives of twenty-nine persons who died in the attack (Civil Action No. 81-0563) and by persons injured during the attack (Civil Action No. 81-0564). In their complaints, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were responsible for multiple tortuous acts in violation of the law of nations, treaties of the US and criminal laws of the US, as well as the common law. The District Court dismissed the action both for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and as barred by the applicable statute of limitations.

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Related developments

The plaintiffs appealed to the District Court’s ruling, thereby deciding not to pursue their claim against the PCNA. The three judges of the Appellate Panel confirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ actions, although the three judges brought forward different reasons for this dismissal. 

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Legally relevant facts

On 11 March 1978, 13 heavily armed members of the PLO landed by boat in Israel and seized a civilian bus, a taxi, a passing car, and later a second civilian bus. They took men, women and children hostage. For several hours members of the PLO raced down the highway torturing passengers in the bus and shooting anyone in sight. When the Israeli police had stopped the massacre, the death toll was at 37 casualties. Moreover, 76 people were wounded. This attack was considered, at that time, to be ‘the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history. Most of the victims were Israeli citizens; a few were American and Dutch citizens. They turned to the District Court in the United States for legal redress.

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Core legal questions

The plaintiffs sought compensatory and punitive damages, arguing that the defendants had committed several tortuous acts. The Court had to assess primarily whether the plaintiffs had established jurisdiction. The plaintiffs sought to establish jurisdiction under two provisions: U.S.C., Title 28, paras. 1331 and 1350. Under U.S.C., Title 28, para. 1331, they asserted that an implied cause of action arose from federal criminal statutes (U.S.C., Title 18, paras. 956; 960; 957; 1651-1661) and the federal common law including the law of nations. The plaintiffs cited, e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Charter as a basis for federal jurisdiction. The PCNA and PIO motioned for summary judgment. The NAAA motioned to dismiss the actions for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and bar by statute of limitation.

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Paragraphs 1331 and 1350 of Title 28 of the US Code.
  • Paragraphs 956, 960, 957, 1651-1661 of Title 18 of the US Code.
  • Paragraphs 12-301 ofd the District of Columbia Code.

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Court's holding and analysis

Given the inapplicability of the federal crimes statutes (pp. 2-3), the Court focussed on the claim that international law offered the plaintiffs a basis for federal jurisdiction. It held, based on Foster v. Neilson,that treaties must provide expressly for a private right of action (pp. 3-4). Plaintiffs had been unable to argue that international law, including law of nations, provided them a cause of action (pp. 5-6).

Regarding  para. 1350, the Court stated that three conditions must be met: the claim must be made by an alien, it must be for a tort and the tort must be in violation of the law of nations or the treaties of the US. The Court considered the second and third condition to be problematic: the allegation that NAAA, the PCNA and the PIO had supported the attack was insufficiently substantiated (p. 7). Also, the Court came to a conclusion similar to the one regarding para. 1331: an action predicated on international law must be based on a specific right to a private claim.The plaintiffs had demonstrated no such entitlement (p. 7). Lastly, the Court held that the action was barred by the one year statute of limitation period (p. 8). 

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited