It is important at the outset to clarify terminology. A variety of statements, papers and position papers on JASTA, include the doctrine of ‘State immunity’ to either reject or support the Act. The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, P-T Stoll (2011) defines State Immunity as:
“State immunity protects a State and its property from the jurisdiction of the courts of another State. It covers administrative, civil, and criminal proceedings (jurisdictional immunity), as well as enforcement measures (enforcement immunity). It reflects the sovereign equality of States as a main pillar of the contemporary international legal order. State immunity is closely related to but distinct from diplomatic immunity and the immunity of heads of States as well as the immunity of international organizations”.
This definition already shows the many levels of ‘immunity’ and the potential for confusion. The immunity at stake in JASTA is jurisdictional immunity. At the core of this immunity lies its procedural character. Immunity from jurisdiction does not mean that the subject enjoying it, is not bound by the law. States are evidently bound to apply international law. They and their agents and representatives are also bound to apply local law. Immunity from jurisdiction simply means that States cannot be pursued by the ordinary courts and tribunals of other States.
State immunity is seldom included in Treaties. It is considered to be part of customary international law. One or two Treaties have tried to codified it (e.g. the 1972 Basel Convention; and the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property, adopted on 2 December 2004) however these Treaties do not have many signatories. Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions such as the United States and the United Kingdom have a purpose-made Act that specifies how State immunity (and its limited exceptions) are to be applied on their soil. Civil law countries tend not to have such Act.
The existence of jurisdictional immunity of the State was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in its judgment of 3 February 2012 in Germany v Italy. Here, the ICJ noted (at 56)
Although there has been much debate regarding the origins of State immunity and the identification of the principles underlying that immunity in the past, the International Law Commission concluded in 1980 that the rule of State immunity had been “adopted as a general rule of customary international law solidly rooted in the current practice of States” (Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1980, Vol. II (2), p. 147, para. 26).
The Court considers that the rule of State immunity occupies an important place in international law and international relations. It derives from the principle of sovereign equality of States, which, as Article 2, paragraph 1, of the Charter of the United Nations makes clear, is one of the fundamental principles of the international legal order. (at 57)
Exceptions to the immunity of the State represent a departure from the principle of sovereign equality.
‘Sovereign equality’ lies at the core of the principle of State immunity. In one of the pivotal early cases on the doctrine, The Schooner Exchange v McFaddon (1812), Justice Marshall of the United States Supreme Court emphasised the functional character of the principle. Other States sovereigns, their bodies and their agents need to be unencumbered in the pursuit of their mission. Just as the home nation expects its sovereign and its representatives to be treated in such way in other nations.
National courts in ordinary are not equal to the sovereign’s status and often diplomatic missions, which is exactly why those activities should not be hampered by law suits having to be entertained in local courts.
It may at first sight seem as if the doctrine of State immunity, like many century old concepts, surely ought not to stand in modern society. In 1951, Professor Sir Hersch Lauterpacht QC called State immunity an essentially insignificant and artificial problem (Lauterpacht, 1951). He supplemented his thoughts with a proposal to all but abolish the immunity of foreign States before domestic courts. In 1988, Professor (now emeritus) Christoph Schreuer published a volume on ‘recent developments’ in State immunity (Schreuer, 1988) in which he demonstrated that, defying Sir Hersch’s predictions, State immunity continued to exist. Now, nearly 30 years after that latter volume and a full 65 years following prof Lauterpacht’ s article, State immunity continues to exercise legislators and the judiciary worldwide, with increased attention to the citisens’ (including corporations) rights of access to justice.
The boundaries and implications of State immunity are more than ever challenged. States and State extensions (public private partnerships; autonomous public undertakings; privatised utilities with public interest duties; State-funded and /or State run corporations…) play an increasingly relevant role in today’s integrated global economies.
Privatisation, outsourcing, and the general trend in many jurisdictions to downsize the government apparatus, means that in recent years more than ever before, boundaries between ‘the State’ and ‘the private sector’ have become increasingly blurred. Yet in litigation, both at the jurisdictional and at the enforcement stage, the conceptual difference between State parties involved in litigation, and ‘commercial’, private parties, continues to exist.
The increasing presence of ‘the State’(in the broad sense) in general economic life has led to a need for renewed statutory and judiciary response to issues as diverse as vulture funds litigation involving sovereign debt, enforcement of arbitral proceedings against States (and similar entities), …
Italian and Belgian courts were among the first to distinguish, in the application of a principle of sovereign immunity, between States acting iure imperii, and acting iure gestionis. The difference being that in the latter, the State pursues commercial activities just like companies and individuals and, the theory goes, they should therefore not enjoy immunity from jurisdiction.
The limited exceptions to state immunity such as in the case of acta iure gestionis may suggest that State immunity faces un unstable path. In 2012, as noted, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) supported state immunity by ruling that Germany could benefit from the principle to avoid paying damages for war crimes and violation of ius cogens (Germany v. Italy). A year later, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was less favourable by stating that an absolute interpretation of the principle violates article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (Oleynikov v. Russia). However that latter case concerned the iure gestionis exception: The case concerned a Russian national who complained about the refusal by the Russian courts to examine his claim concerning the repayment of a loan to the Trade representation of North Korea. The Court held that the limitation of Mr Oleynikov’s right of access to court had pursued the legitimate aim of promoting good relations between States through the respect of national sovereignty. However, it concluded that the Russian courts had failed to examine whether the nature of the transaction underlying the claim was of a private law nature and to take into account the provisions of international law in favour of restrictive immunity.
The point about State immunity from jurisdiction is that it operates blindly. It can only fulfil its function if it is entirely blind to the merits of the underlying case. Except if the case might conceivably involve commercial activities of the State concerned, a court should simply not entertain the case at all. This is all the more relevant in cases which involve topical international relations issues, such as in particular the fight against international terrorism. By lifting that procedural bar, JASTA makes sovereign States, including those of the European Union, subject to the full weight of American civil procedure, including pre-trial discovery, trial by jury, attorneys fees etc. Exactly the kind of distraction which Justice Marshall would have called an unjustified and unhelpful complication in Sovereign States pursuing their business, as States.
A unilateral change to the theory and practice of sovereign immunity such as proposed by JASTA, in my view does not reflect international law on the issue. It would undermine the very foundation of international diplomacy and law. I believe European nations would be well advised to protest against it, and to protest loudly.
There is no such thing as ‘sovereign immunity-light’. From the moment the principle is eroded, even for what seems a good or justified cause, it is damaged beyond repair.