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Can I Sue the Government of Another Country While I Travel?

Whether or not you can sue any government largely depends on the local laws of the country you are traveling in. Depending on what part of the government you are suing and what you are suing for, you may be able to bring legal action against the country you're in. But it depends.

In general, to sue a government of a country, you have to do so by initiating your lawsuit in the borders of the very country whose government you are suing. The reasons for this are discussed later below. There are some limited exceptions where you may be able to sue a foreign government in the United States itself; this is discussed later in the article as well. Nevertheless, for the most part, the assumption in this article is that you're traveling somewhere outside the U.S. and intending to sue the government of the country you're visiting while you're on your travels.

Because international law is very complicated, you should get legal advice from lawyers familiar with the laws of foreign governments to determine if you have the ability to sue. If you need to sue a government abroad, try discussing your legal issues with an international law lawyer first to see if legal action is possible. They may also be able to refer you to a lawyer within the country you wish to sue.

The First Question to Ask: What is a Government?

In broad terms, a government is a system or power that regulates a specific locality or body of land. But when we're talking about suing governments, the question won't make much sense unless we're more specific on the kind of political governing body we're talking about.

A government can be:

  • a local, municipal, or city government
  • a regional or county government
  • a provincial or state government
  • a tribal or village government
  • a military government

More generally, your potential defendant might also be the central government of:

  • a parliamentary or presidential republic
  • constitutional or absolute monarchy
  • a one-party state or dictatorship

This is not the full list of potential types of governments but covers some common types of systems that exist across the world.

Why Does the System of Government Matter?

This question turns on two separate issues:

  1. Which government is responsible for the harm I have suffered?
  2. Is this a type of government that will permit a lawsuit against itself?

Let's make up a story to put these two issues into perspective. The easiest example is a personal injury case: You're walking on a street and fall into a manhole because a government worker forgot to close it up or put up a warning sign that the cover is missing. You are injured from your fall and you're after justice.

First, you have to determine which government is responsible for your injury. These are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • Whose property was I walking on? (Presumably, for our purposes, it's the government's.)
  • Who hired the government employee?

The street that you were walking on may belong to a local municipality (city), or it might be an unincorporated area under the control of a regional government. If you're traveling outside the United States, power structures in the form of counties or states might not even exist, and there might be one central government that oversees all public property.

It might also be helpful to know which government actually hired the worker who forgot to make the street safe. Was it an employee of the central government for the country you're traveling in, or was it a local employee hired by the authority that has power in the local region you're traveling in? There are different possibilities.

Second, you have to be honest with yourself and ask if the government you're suing will actually provide a way for you to get justice. Suppose that you have determined that it was the central government that was responsible for your injuries — that is, the “big" government that oversees the entire country and not just a local territory inside of that country.

Is your defendant:

  • The totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea?
  • The democratic Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a parliamentary constitutional monarchy?
  • The Navajo Nation, a federally recognized tribal authority in the United States?

The question “Can I sue?" doesn't actually turn on whether you can walk into a courthouse and file a complaint. Rather, when we ask if suing is possible, what we really mean is if it's worth suing or if it would be a wasted effort.

You'd probably have no luck trying to sue North Korea, but you'd probably have a shot against a democratic country like the United Kingdom. You may also be able to recover your injuries in a Navajo tribal court.

Using the United States as a Case Example

Because you're most familiar with the United States, let's use it as a starting point to help you understand whether you can sue a foreign government. Setting aside its territories (e.g. Puerto Rico and Guam), it might be helpful for you to imagine America as 50 different “countries" that are bound together under one central government.

This isn't actually too far from the truth. Because the United States is a federal republic, the central government (federal government) that governs the country oversees 50 sovereign states. The federal government shares power with these 50 state governments. Also, just as we discussed in our examples, each of these 50 state governments has their own regional sub-governments that consist of counties and cities.

Apart from the central (federal) government and the 50 governments of the member states, America is a mish-mash of thousands of different governments across approximately 19,500 incorporated places. That's right—even if we're talking about America alone, there are thousands of different governments you could theoretically sue depending on whether you're suing a city, town, county, and so on.

Suing the Federal Government

For reasons already discussed above, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that the central government of any country should be your “go-to" when it comes to naming your sovereign defendant. Nevertheless, it might be a good starting point.

Sovereign Immunity

Whether you're suing the United States or some other country, one of the first and probably biggest problems you'll typically face is sovereign immunity, also known as state or crown immunity. This is a legal rule that gives the state immunity from being sued in civil or criminal court. Having its roots in the English monarchy, sovereign immunity was born from the understanding that “the king can do no wrong."

You cannot sue the state unless it waives sovereign immunity, and if it does, the state gets to set the terms on which it can be sued. For example, the federal government has waived sovereign immunity for tax refunds, but you have to file your claim in U.S. Tax Court. Similarly, the U.S. permits you to sue it for certain tort claims, such as personal injury lawsuits, under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)

Let's go back to our earlier example concerning the personal injury case where you fell through an exposed manhole. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, you have a valid claim against the U.S. government if you can prove that:

  1. You were injured by a federal government employee;
  2. The employee acted within their job responsibilities;
  3. The employee was negligent; and
  4. You were injured as a result of the employee's negligence.

Here, if a federal employee was negligent in covering the open manhole or placing warnings around its exposed circumference, you may have a valid claim against the government under the FTCA.

Many U.S. states have adopted similar laws that allow you to sue local and state governments in similar situations.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA)

The FSIA is a U.S. law that allows Americans to bring lawsuits against foreign governments in U.S. courts, but only in very limited circumstances:

  • The state defendant engages in commercial activities, including maritime activities, that affect the United States;
  • The state takes property in violation of international law;
  • A dispute arises over rights in property bought by a foreign state located within the United States
  • A foreign state injures someone within the U.S.
  • A court must enforce an arbitration agreement made by foreign states with U.S. persons

Keep in mind, however, that unless the money or property you're suing for is in the United States, an American court might have limited power to actually enforce its decision under FSIA.

Section 1983 Litigation

Section 1983 refers to 42 U.S. Code § 1983, which is a federal law creating a “civil action for deprivation of rights." Section 1983 applies to allow you to sue a government or government actor when:

  1. The defendant's action occurred “under color of state law" and
  2. The defendant's action resulted in the deprivation of a constitutional right or federal statutory right.

For instance, let's suppose that state police takes away your property with no explanation whatsoever, and refuses to give you an opportunity to receive a hearing: one day your car is sitting in your garage, and the next day it's been towed away to a state highway patrol facility. You're locked out and the state police won't give your car back to you. Normally, a hearing would have given you an opportunity to explain that you are the rightful owner of that property, and the state had no right to take it away from you without having a valid reason. Here, your due process rights under the Constitution have been violated by the state.

Under Section 1983, you may be able to sue state and city governments, government agencies, law enforcement officers, and correctional officers who might have otherwise enjoyed immunity. However, the application of this law is limited when other kinds of remedies, such as state remedies, are already available (such as through a state's own waiver of its immunity).

In the example scenario above, if the state is unwilling to provide you with a way to obtain a hearing regarding your confiscated property, you may be able to bring a Section 1983 action against the state police for wrongfully taking your car without any justification.

Contact an International Law Attorney

While this article provides general information on suing foreign states and sovereign nations, the reality of the matter is that suing the government of another country while traveling is challenging at best. Keep in mind that some foreign states may not have waived sovereign immunity at all. And even if you can sue, the local environment might be such that filing a lawsuit would be a waste of time (or even counterproductive).

If you are thinking of suing a country you're traveling in, you should get in touch with an attorney who knows the local laws of the country. A consultation with an international law attorney might lead to a solid referral.

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