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Pursuing justice, respecting the law

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In the 1980s, despite the rise of terrorist attacks worldwide, the international community failed to respond cooperatively. When U.S. citizens were the focus of attacks, even friendly countries had little incentive to risk the safety of their citizens or the tenets of their foreign policy to prosecute terrorists. In response, the United States passed statutes providing for extraterritorial jurisdiction over acts committed abroad against U.S. citizens and then engaged in a series of dramatic seizures to enforce these measures. Unfortunately, these abductions were generally not defensible under international law and, in any event, could not be used when a terrorist was located within the territory of a major friendly country. In large part unexpectedly, however, the statutes have rendered such extraordinary measures unnecessary while still remedying what was a visible failure of international criminal cooperation.

Even without threatening international abductions, the United States can use the Hostage Taking Act and the Terrorist Prosecution Act to demand extradition and to undertake independent investigations of violations of federal laws. These efforts put pressure on governments that have custody over terrorists. The international and the diplomatic consequences of neither extraditing nor prosecuting have proven sufficient to encourage U.S. allies to prosecute terrorists themselves. Surprisingly, therefore, the statutes have turned out to be effective because they encourage prosecutions of terrorists abroad, thereby remedying a failure in international cooperation and helping to ensure a consistent, strong, international response to acts of terrorism despite the continued inability of the United States to obtain custody of those attacking its citizens.

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Class of 1993, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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Heymann, P.B., Gershengorn, I.H. Pursuing justice, respecting the law. Crim Law Forum 3, 1–48 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01095756

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  • International Economic
  • Foreign Policy
  • International Community
  • International Cooperation
  • Terrorist Attack