How do countries sue each other?
May 19, 2014 3:24 PM   Subscribe

I sometimes hear on the news that one country is suing another. How does this work and what court hears the case? I googled my question and came up empty-handed. TIA
posted by harrietthespy to Law & Government (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One option is the International Court of Justice. Countries agree to settle their disputes there, or occasionally have previously agreed to go that court on topics X,Y,Z and just get sued there. They are often the biggest cases - the use of force by the US in Nicaragua, boundary disputes, whether or not a victim of war crimes can sue a foreign country for those war crimes (aka can italian citizens sue germany for nazi war crimes, while in italy) - but not always. That would be my first thought, given no other information.

Beyond that, you have any number of specific courts & tribunals. You've got the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice, WTO dispute resolution, and many many more. Essentially whenever you set up a multi-national treaty you usually make a mechanism to bring lawsuits, because otherwise you can't enforce.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:39 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for taking the time, Lemurrhea.
posted by harrietthespy at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2014

Best answer: There are number of courts that have jurisdiction depending on the issue. The World Trade Organization is one place where member states can sue each other. As is the World Court. The problem with these organizations is they often lack what many people would consider real power to enforce thier decisions.

For instance, let's say that you are the leader of Metafilteria. You believe that citizens of Redditopia are providing illegal corn subsidies to thier farmers. So you go to the WTO and prove your case. 10 years later the WTO finally rules in your favor. But the WTO can't make Redditopia remove the subsidies. All the WTO can do is give Metafilteria the right to impose tariffs on goods from Redditopia. That may cause political pressures inside Redditopia to remove the subsidies, but often it doesn't. In the real world equivalent the above the USA ended up paying Brazil millions of dollars a year and making a vague promise to remove the subsidies someday. So far that hasn't happened.

Now to make it more complicated countries can sue each other, sometimes, in thier own or other counties courts. This happens when the country has a treaty to give up it immunity to suit. Generally they do this in a limited matter. I.e. The USA may agree you can sue them to enforce government contracts for goods, bit not over human rights.

In short. No easy answer. It depends on which country and what the subject matter the lawsuit is over.

On preview: typing on a cellphone takes too long to beat the smart people of Metafilteria.
posted by bswinburn at 3:50 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This question has no single answer. International Law is not a single body, but rather a loose collection of various treaties and agreements. Most international treaties and organizations do NOT have a judicial system.

There are however, a handful of international courts (a judicial system created within some international treaty). For example, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague is created from United Nations treaties. But, most international courts have no real authority to carry out any legal ruling. For example, if ICJ rules that country X is poisoning the citizens of Country Y, and therefore Country X must immediately stop mining some precious metal - who is going to really enforce that on country X. Check into the various rulings about Blood Diamonds in Africa, for example. The ICJ is largley toothless. But countries do sue each other there.

WTO Dispute Resolution, treated from GATT and other economic treaties, can be very much like a real court, and frequently involves billion dollar disputes between two nations, and it has a decent bite to enforce its rulings. The vast majority of countries will comply with a WTO ruling. They have to, or the other country can impose Tariffs without WTO penalty, and countries love free tax money paid by other country. However, the biggest players can game the system. The WTO cannot force USA, Germany, or Japan to do anything. Those countries have to agree, and when they don't agree, others have to accept that.
posted by Flood at 4:06 PM on May 19, 2014

Best answer: In a lot of cases, a plaintiff goes to the World Court, and the nominal defendant says, "Get Stuffed" and refuses to participate. The World Court may issue a ruling in the case but the nominal defendant has already said they don't care what the World Court thinks.

That's how it was when the US mined Nicaragua's harbors. Nicaragua went to the World Court and the Reagan administration said, not in so many words, "Bite me."

Another example of that is the "American Service-Members' Protection Act" of 2002. If any American soldier or sailor or airman is detained for trial by the ICJ in the Hague, the ASMPA grants the President full authority to do whatever is necessary, up to and including using military force, to free them. (Opponents started referring to it as the "Hague Invasion Act" because it authorizes such action if the President thinks it necessary.)

So there are a lot of cases where one country wants to sue another country but as a practical matter there's no venue with binding jurisdiction, so they have to swallow it and find some other way of coping.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:02 PM on May 19, 2014

Best answer: A brief googling didn't find a nice overview of it, and some of my details may be off, but...

In the 1980s and 1990s, Argentina issued a bunch of debt. Because "loaning money to Argentina" has, in the past, not been a good investment, the bond issue included a provision that the debt would be issued in the United States, under US law, and that all disputes associated with it would be handled by US courts, specifically, those in New York State.

Argentina defaulted in ~2002, and offered creditors 25 cents on the dollar. Some of the creditors (based in the Cayman Islands) refused, and filed suit in New York.

That lawsuit has since wound its way through the courts. As it stands right now, the courts are leaning towards forcing Argentina to pay off those creditors at full value, and indicating a willingness to seize Argentinean assets that they can get their hands on to satisfy the debt.

So, in this case, Cayman Islanders sued Argentina, and the lawsuit happens in the United States because Argentina agreed that it could.
posted by Hatashran at 7:41 PM on May 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for the helpful answers! It was just a casual question in passing, but I am glad to know more. Learning new things is wonderful.
posted by harrietthespy at 7:56 PM on May 19, 2014

With respect to the Argentinian debt crisis noted about, much of the restructuring of that debt was handled by the Paris Club and London Club. If you google "Paris Club, London Club and debt" you'll get a good sense of these institutions.
posted by slateyness at 5:41 AM on May 20, 2014

My point being; there are often formal mechanisms for dispute resolution, like the aforementioned Paris and London clubs, that are not courts where countries sue each other. And they are an important part of the intenational legal landscape as well.
posted by slateyness at 5:43 AM on May 20, 2014

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