Today’s New York Times contains an article detailing the plight of former hostages from the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. Although the hostages were held for 444, the United States promised in the Algiers Accords – which ended the crisis and allowed the hostages to come home – to bar the hostages from suing Iran in US federal courts.
The hostages have been fighting for compensation for many years. Their treatment was no doubt brutal during the more than a year they spent in captivity, which included some time in solitary confinement and mock executions. The unlawful deprivation of liberty alone ought to be the basis for a substantial compensation award. The U.S. government gave them a paltry $50 per day, according to the article, but the government of Iran has never paid anything.
Although the hostages have received a sympathetic response in Congress, the State Department and the judiciary have been less sympathetic. The latter two branches have consistently sought to uphold the Algiers Accords and note that the Executive Branch needs to occasionally bar compensation claims in federal court in order to pursue foreign relations with other states. The Supreme Court in Dames & Moore v. Regan upheld the power of the President to do this. The desire for collective justice sometimes trumps the demands of individual justice -- a form of utilitarian balancing that would no doubt offend even the mildest of Kantians.
The hostages have a right to feel bitter about the resolution of the case imposed on them by the Algiers Accords. American companies had their property and assets seized during the Iranian revolution, but the Algiers Accords did not prevent them from filing claims entirely, but rather transferred those claims to a newly created arbitration panel called the U.S. Iran Claims Tribunal, located in The Hague. Incidentally, that tribunal is still hearing cases, making it one of the oldest ad hoc international tribunals in operation.
So although it seems pretty clear that the U.S. government had the right to interfere with these claims in order to end the crisis, the real problem here is the asymmetry between how corporate claims were treated under the Algiers Accords and how the hostage victims were treated.
All of this leads me to a question not addressed by the New York Times article. The hostages are pursuing a case, seemingly against all odds, in U.S. courts, and the Supreme Court is currently deciding whether to grant cert in that class action case. Smart money has it that they will decline cert, in my opinion. But perhaps the correct result here isn’t a claim in U.S. courts, but rather a compensation claim to the U.S. Iran Claims Tribunal?
Unfortunately, the tribunal was only set up to hear property and contract claims, not human rights or personal injury claims. But that’s precisely the problem here, and perhaps one that the Carter administration should have considered more carefully when finishing the Algiers Accords.
Would it have been impossible to include some provision to provide for some compensation to the hostages through an alternative process? Obviously, the Iranians would have objected to allowing the hostages to pursue their claims in U.S. courts. But would the Iranians have refused to release the hostages simply because the new tribunal was given jurisdiction over personal injury claims in addition to contract disputes? I find that hard to believe, although maybe someone involved in the actual negotiations can enlighten me. Was it really a deal breaker?