Belhaj and Another v Straw and Others: SC 17 Jan 2017

The claimant alleged complicity by the defendant, (now former) Foreign Secretary, in his mistreatment by the US while held in Libya. He also alleged involvement in his unlawful abduction and removal to Libya, from which had had fled for political persecution. The defendants now appealed from rejection of the defendants’ claim to state immunity and their reliance on the foreign act of state doctrine which, he held, was not engaged.
Held: The defendants’ appeals failed. State immunity is a matter of customary international law acknowledged by common law and statute. It arose from the equality of sovereign states and a need for international comity. The immunity given was personal to the state as to its sovereign actions. It worked only on the direct or indirect impleading of the state, in non-consensual proceedings were or where the proceedings, even though the state was not itself a party, related to its property.
These claims were rather against officials of the UK, not of any foreign state, and no question arose of any relief being sought other than against the domestic defendants. No legal position of no foreign state being directly or indirectly affected by the claims, the pleas of state immunity failed.
Lord Sumption said: ‘The act of state doctrine comprises two principles. The first can conveniently be called ‘Crown act of state’ and does not arise in the present cases. It is that in an action based on a tort committed abroad, it is in some circumstances a defence that it was done on the orders or with the subsequent approval of the Crown in the course of its relations with a foreign state. The second, commonly called ‘foreign act of state’, is that the courts will not adjudicate upon the lawfulness or validity of certain sovereign acts of foreign states. For this purpose a sovereign act means the same as it does in the law of state immunity. It is an act done jure imperii, as opposed to a commercial transaction or other act of a private law character. These are distinct principles, although they are based on certain common legal instincts.’
Lord Neuberger, President, Lady Hale, Deputy President, Lord Mance, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Sumption, Lord Hughes
[2017] UKSC 3, [2017] HRLR 4, [2017] AC 964, [2017] 3 All ER 337, [2017] WLR(D) 51, [2017] 2 WLR 456, UKSC 2014/0264
Bailii, Bailii Summary, WLRD, SC, SC Summary, SC Summary Video
England and Wales
CitedYukos Capital Sarl v OJSC Rosneft Oil Company CA 27-Jun-2012
The court was asked to enforce an award of a foreign court, but the claimant objected to admission of evidence as to the procedures underlying the obtaining of the judgment which might go to show unfairness.
Held: International comity and the . .
See AlsoRahmatullah v Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Another Admn 29-Jul-2011
The claimant, a Pakistani national, detained by US Armed forces in Bagram in Afghanistan, sought a writ of habeas corpus. He had been first captured by British forces in Iraq in 2004, and transferred to US military under a Memorandum of . .
CitedUnited States of America v Dollfus Mieg et Cie SA HL 1952
The Bank of England was holding, in safe custody for the governments of the US, France and the UK, bars of gold which had been wrongly removed by German troops from a French bank and later captured by the allied armies in Germany during the Second . .
CitedSecretary of State for Home Affairs v O’Brien HL 1923
The Crown has no right of appeal against the grant of a discharge of a prisoner on a writ of habeas corpus.
The Home Secrtary appealed against the issue of a writ of habeas corpus against him in respect of a prisoner held in Mountjoy prison in . .
CitedNissan v The Attorney General HL 11-Feb-1969
The plaintiff was a British subject with a hotel in Cyprus taken over by British troops on a peace-keeping mission. At first the men were there by agreement of the governments of Cyprus and the United Kingdom. Later they became part of a United . .
CitedSecretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs v Rahmatullah SC 31-Oct-2012
The claimant complained that the UK Armed forces had taken part in his unlawful rendition from Iraq by the US government. He had been detaiined in Iraq and transferred to US Forces. The government became aware that he was to be removed to . .
CitedRahmatullah (No 2) v Ministry of Defence and Another SC 17-Jan-2017
‘another round in the series of important points of law which arise as preliminary issues in actions brought by people who claim to have been wrongfully detained or mistreated by British or American troops in the course of the conflicts in Iraq and . .
See AlsoBelhaj and Others v Security Service and Others IPT 18-Nov-2014
. .
CitedThe Parlement Belge CA 1879
An action in rem indirectly impleaded a sovereign who was the owner of the vessel served because his property was affected by the judgment of the court. An unincorporated treaty cannot change the law of the land and, ‘the immunity of the sovereign . .
CitedBelhaj and Another v Straw and Others QBD 20-Dec-2013
The Claimants sought a declaration of illegality and claim damages arising from what they contend was the participation of the seven Defendants in their unlawful abduction, kidnapping and illicit removal across state borders to Libya in March 2004. . .
CitedBelhaj and Another v Straw and Others CA 30-Oct-2014
Judiciary 1. In these proceedings the appellants seek a declaration of illegality and damages arising from what they contend was the participation of the respondents in their unlawful abduction, kidnapping and . .
CitedCompania Naviera Vascongado v Steamship ‘Cristina’ HL 1938
A state-owned ship that was used for public purposes could not be made the subject of proceedings in rem. Lord Atkin described the absolute immunity of a sovereign of a foreign state within this jurisdiction: ‘The foundation for the application to . .
CitedPropend Finance Property Ltd and Others v Sing and Another CA 17-Apr-1997
Diplomatic immunity had not been waived by an Australian policeman acting in breach of a court undertaking re documents. The effect of s14(1) was to give state officials protection ‘under the same cloak’ as the state itself: ‘The protection afforded . .
CitedHolland v Lampen-Wolfe HL 20-Jul-2000
The US established a base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, and provided educational services through its staff to staff families. The claimant a teacher employed at the base alleged that a report on her was defamatory. The defendant relied on state . .
CitedHatch v Baez 1876
(United States) The plaintiff claimed that he had suffered injuries in the Dominican Republic as a result of acts done by the defendant in his official capacity of President of that Republic. The Court accepted that because the defendant was in New . .
CitedUnderhill v Hernandez 29-Nov-1897
(US Supreme Court) Underhill, a US citizen, had constructed a waterworks in Bolivar for the government which was eventually overthrown by revolutionary forces, one of whose generals was Hernandez. After Hernandez had captured Bolivar, Underhill . .
CitedCarr v Fracis Times and Co HL 1902
The House considered a claim following seizure of ammunition by British officers in Muscat under the authority of a proclamation of the absolute ruler, the Sultan of Muscat, whose word was law.
Held: The appeal succeeded. To found an action . .
CitedOetjen v Central Leather Co 1918
(US Supreme Court) Animal hides were seized and sold to satisfy a monetary assessment to support the revolution, and there was an issue of title between an assignee from the original owner and a person deriving his claim to title from the purchaser . .
CitedAksionairnoye Obschestvo A M Luther v James Sagor and Co CA 1921
A claim was made as to property seized by a decree of Russian revolutionaries later recognised as the government.
Held: A court is required to recognise a foreign state’s dealings with private proprietary rights within its jurisdiction. An . .
CitedPrincess Paley Olga v Weisz 1929
English courts will refrain from examining the validity of foreign executive action relating to matters within the territorial jurisdiction of the foreign state. . .
CitedIn re Helbert Wagg and Co Ltd’s Claim ChD 8-Dec-1955
Conflict of Laws – Movables – Assignment – Foreign legislation –
Validity – Foreign exchange legislation – Whether confiscatory –
German Moratorium law of 1933 – Debt payable in London made payable to
Konversionskasse in Reichsmarks – German law . .
CitedRahimtoola v Nizam of Hyderabad HL 1957
A claim was made against the former High Commissioner for Pakistan personally for money had and received. He established that he had received the money in England in his official capacity as High Commissioner.
Held: Appeal allowed. The . .
CitedOppenheimer v Cattermole (Inspector of Taxes) HL 5-Feb-1975
HL Income tax, Schedule D – Foreign possessions – Double taxation relief – German government pension for past services – Paid to British subject of German origin – Whether German nationality deemed to be retained . .
CitedWilliams and Humbert Ltd v W and H Trade Marks (Jersey) Ltd HL 1986
There had been an expropriation by Spanish decrees of shares in a Spanish company whose English subsidiary had rights in trade marks which it had sold to a Jersey company. The Spanish and English companies sought certain relief in relation to the . .
CitedGolder v The United Kingdom ECHR 21-Feb-1975
G was a prisoner who was refused permission by the Home Secretary to consult a solicitor with a view to bringing libel proceedings against a prison officer. The court construed article 6 of ECHR, which provides that ‘in the determination of his . .
CitedKuwait Airways Corporation v Iraqi Airways Company and Others (Nos 4 and 5) HL 16-May-2002
After the invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi government had dissolved Kuwait airlines, and appropriated several airplanes. Four planes were destroyed by Allied bombing, and 6 more were appropriated again by Iran.
Held: The appeal failed. No claim . .
CitedRoche v The United Kingdom ECHR 19-Oct-2005
(Grand Chamber) The claimant had been exposed to harmful chemicals whilst in the Army at Porton Down in 1953. He had wished to claim a service pension on the basis of the ensuing personal injury, but had been frustrated by many years of the . .
CitedJones v Ministry of Interior for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others HL 14-Jun-2006
The claimants said that they had been tortured by Saudi police when arrested on false charges. They sought damages, and appealed against an order denying jurisdiction over the defendants. They said that the allegation of torture allowed an exception . .
CitedCanada (Justice) v Khadr 23-May-2008
Supreme Court of Canada
Civil procedure – Motion for sealing order – Documents to be adduced as fresh evidence can be filed only if subject to sealing order – Admissibility and use of documents to be determined by panel of Supreme Court . .
CitedAK Investment CJSC v Kyrgyz Mobil Tel Ltd and Others PC 10-Mar-2011
Developing Law – Summary Procedures Very Limited
(Isle of Man) (‘Altimo’) The parties were all based in Kyrgyzstan, but the claimant sought a remedy in the Isle of Man which would be unavailable in Kyrgyzstan.
Held: Lord Collins said: ‘The general rule is that it is not normally appropriate . .
CitedSabeh El Leil v France ECHR 29-Jun-2011
Grand Chamber – The applicant alleged that he had been deprived of his right of access to a court as a result of the immunity from jurisdiction upheld by the domestic courts.
This was a claim for unfair dismissal, brought before the French . .
CitedDobree And Others v Napier And Another 9-May-1836
A vessel (Lord of the Isles) supplying the revolutionary Don Miguel of Portugal was seized in the Portuguese port of St Martinho by Sir Charles Napier as admiral in the service of the Queen of Portugal lawfully under Portuguese law. The ship was . .
CitedCharles Duke of Brunswick v The King of Hanover 13-Jan-1844
Discussion of the question whether a sovereign prince was liable to the jurisdiction of the Courts of a foreign country, in which he happens to be resident, and as to the liability to suit of one who unites in himself the characters both of an . .
CitedGovernment of India v Taylor HL 1955
The Government of India sought to prove in the voluntary liquidation of a company registered in the United Kingdom but trading in India for a sum due in respect of Indian income tax, including capital gains tax, which arose on the sale of the . .
CitedBuck v Attorney General CA 2-Jan-1965
By an action for declaratory relief, a challenge was offered to the validity of the Order in Council giving effect to the 1961 Act.
Held: The appeal failed. As a matter of international comity an English court should not grant declarations . .
CitedButtes Gas and Oil Co v Hammer (No 3) HL 1981
In a defamation action, issues arose as to two conflicting oil concessions which neighbouring states in the Arabian Gulf had granted over their territorial and offshore waters. The foreign relations of the United Kingdom and Iran were also involved . .
CitedEmpresa Exportadora de Azucar v Industria Azucarera Nacional S.A, The Playa Larga CA 1983
There had been a theft by Cuban sellers of one cargo of sugar, property in which had already passed to the buyers, and non-delivery of a second combined with trickery whereby the intended buyers were nonetheless induced to pay its price. The first . .
CitedLucasfilm Ltd and Others v Ainsworth and Another SC 27-Jul-2011
The claimant had produced the Star War films which made use of props, in particular a ‘Stormtrooper’ helmet designed by the defendant. The defendant had then himself distributed models of the designs he had created. The appellant obtained judgment . .
CitedCouncil of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service HL 22-Nov-1984
The House considered an executive decision made pursuant to powers conferred by a prerogative order. The Minister had ordered employees at GCHQ not to be members of trades unions.
Held: The exercise of a prerogative power of a public nature . .
CitedKurt v Turkey ECHR 25-May-1998
The court referred to ‘the fundamental importance of the guarantees contained in Article 5 for securing the right of individuals in a democracy to be free from arbitrary detention at the hands of the authorities’ and to the need to interpret . .
CitedMoti v Regina 7-Dec-2011
High Court of Australia – Mr Moti claimed that he had been deported by officials of the Solomon Islands Government from the Solomon Islands to Australia, where he was wanted for trial. The deportation occurred after the High Commissioner had issued . .
CitedGul (M), Regina v CACD 22-Feb-2012
The defendant appealed against his conviction under the 2006 Act for disseminating terrorist publications. He had uploaded to the internet videos showing attacks ofn coalition forces on soldiers of the coalition. He said that his were not acts . .
CitedGul, Regina v SC 23-Oct-2013
Mr Gul appealed against a dismissal of his appeal against his conviction for dissemination of terrorist publications contrary to section 2 of the 2006 Act. The Court was now asked as to the meaning of ‘terrorism’ in section 1 of the Terrorism Act . .
CitedKhan, Regina (on The Application of) v The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs CA 20-Jan-2014
The claimant’s father had been killed in Pakistan by a missile in a drone strike by the USA. He alleged that the strike had been supported by positional information supplied by the British intelligence agencies, and sought judicial review of the . .
CitedShergill and Others v Khaira and Others SC 11-Jun-2014
The parties disputed the trusts upon which three Gurdwaras (Sikh Temples) were held. The Court of Appeal had held that the issues underlying the dispute were to be found in matters of the faith of the Sikh parties, and had ordered a permanent stay. . .
CitedRegina (Abbasi) v Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs CA 6-Nov-2002
There is no authority in law to support the imposition of an enforceable duty on the state to protect the citizen, and although the court was able to intervene, in limited ways, in the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office used its . .
CitedA and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department (No 2) HL 8-Dec-2005
The applicants had been detained following the issue of certificates issued by the respondent that they posed a terrorist threat. They challenged the decisions of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission saying that evidence underlying the . .
CitedMarkovic and Others v Italy ECHR 14-Dec-2006
The applicants were relatives of persons who had been killed in the NATO air-raid on Belgrade in 1999. The raid was said to be an act of war in violation of international law. It had been launched from bases in Italy. The Corte de Cassazione had . .
CitedMcElhinney v Ireland; Al-Adsani v United Kingdom; Fogarty v United Kingdom ECHR 21-Nov-2001
Grand Chamber – The first applicant said he had been injured by a shot fired by a British soldier who had been carried for two miles into the Republic of Ireland, clinging to the applicant’s vehicle following an incident at a checkpoint.
Held: . .
CitedJones and Others v The United Kingdom ECHR 14-Jan-2014
. .
CitedNabob of The Carnatic v The East India Company 2-Jan-1789
A political treaty, between sovereigns, or parties exercising sovereign authority cannot be the subject of a municipal jurisdiction. . .
CitedNabob of The Carnatic v East India Company 28-Jan-1793
The case arose out of the East India Company’s controversial relations with the Nabob at a stage when the courts had not yet learned to identify the East India Company with the British government. The Company had assisted the Nabob, a sovereign . .
CitedThomas Cook and James Charles Cook v Sir James Gordon Sprigg PC 1-Aug-1899
Municipal courts have not and cannot have the competence to adjudicate upon or to enforce the rights arising out of transactions entered into by independent sovereign states between themselves on the plane of international law.
(Cape of Good . .
CitedCampaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) v Prime Minister and others Admn 17-Dec-2002
CND sought an advisory declaration as to the meaning of UN Security Council resolution 1441, which had given Iraq ‘a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations’ and whether the resolution authorised states to take military action . .
CitedPeer International Corporation Southern Music Publishing Company Inc Peermusic (UK) Limited v Termidor Music Publishers Limited Termidor Musikverlag Gmbh and Co Kg -And-Editoria Musical De Cuba CA 30-Jul-2003
Peer sought declarations that they were the owners, or licensees, of the UK copyright in musical works composed by Cuban nationals, relying on assignments in writing by the composers and in some instances by their heirs. The defendants claimed under . .
CitedMaclaine Watson and Co Ltd v International Tin Council HL 2-Jan-1989
The International Tin Council was a body constituted by an international treaty not incorporated into law in the United Kingdom. The ITC was also created a legal person in the United Kingdom by article 5 1972 Order.
Held: As a legal person in . .
CitedRegina v Horseferry Road Magistrates’ Court, ex Parte Bennett (No 1) HL 24-Jun-1993
The defendant had been brought to the UK in a manner which was in breach of extradition law. He had, in effect, been kidnapped by the authorities.
Held: The High Court may look at how an accused person was brought within the jurisdiction when . .
CitedMullen and Another, Regina v CACD 5-May-2000
Mr Mullen, had been deported from Zimbabwe to the United Kingdom as a result of a plan concocted between the United Kingdom and Zimbabwean authorities which involved breaching Zimbabwean extradition law.
Held: The subsequent conviction was set . .
CitedPrincess Paley Olga v Wiesz CA 1929
The Court considered a seizure of property from the plaintiff which had then been adopted by the Russian Government and a later confiscation decree.
Held: The decree was effective to vest the goods in the Russian authorities and the adopted . .
CitedKhaira and Others v Shergill and Others CA 17-Jul-2012
The parties disputed the trusteeship and governance of two Gurdwaras (Sikh temples). The defendants now applied for the claim to be struck out on the basis that the differences were as to Sikh doctrines and practice and as such were unjusticiable. . .
CitedRex v Earl of Crewe, Ex parte Sekgome CA 1910
The Bechuanaland Protectorate in South Africa was ‘under His Majesty’s dominion in the sense of power and jurisdiction, but is not under his dominion in the sense of territorial dominion. A protectorate is a foreign country whose governance is an . .
CitedBlad v Bamfield PC 2-Nov-1674
Peter Blad was holder of a patent of monopoly from the King of Denmark to trade in Iceland, then a Danish possession. Bamfield was an Englishman whose property was seized on the high seas in 1668 by the authority of the Danish Crown and forfeited by . .
CitedSecretary of State in Council of India v Kamachee Boye Sahaba 1859
Lord Kingsdown said: ‘ . . the transactions of independent States between each other are governed by other laws than those which Municipal Courts administer’. . .
CitedRio Tinto Zinc Corporation v Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Re Westinghouse Electric Corpn Uranium Contract Litigation MDL Docket No 235 (No 2) HL 1977
The court considered a claim that a party was not compelled to give evidence where it might incriminate him: ‘No one is bound to furnish information against himself. It [the common law] says: ‘If a witness claims the protection of the court, on the . .
CitedAl-Saadoon and Others v Secretary of State for Defence Admn 17-Mar-2015
Leggatt J explained the idea of enforced disappearance: ‘a concept recognised in international law and . . a practice which is internationally condemned. It involves detention outside the protection of the law where there is a refusal by the state . .
CitedPlaya Larga (Owners of Cargo Lately Laden on Board) v I Congresso del Partido (Owners) HL 1983
The concept of absolute immunity for a Sovereign adopts a theory of restrictive immunity in so far as it concerns the activities of a State engaging in trade: (Lord Wilberforce) ‘It was argued by the [appellants] that even if the Republic of Cuba . .
CitedSchuler-Zgraggen v Switzerland ECHR 24-Jun-1993
The court considered a contributory invalidity scheme: ‘today the general rule is that Article 6(1) does apply in the field of social insurance, including even welfare assistance . . State intervention is not sufficient to establish that Article . .
CitedSchuler-Zgraggen v Switzerland (Article 50) ECHR 31-Jan-1995
. .
CitedAIG Capital Partners Inc and Another v Kazakhstan ComC 20-Oct-2005
Aitkens J said as to the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property that it though not in force, and not ratified by the United Kingdom: ‘its existence and adoption by the UN after the long and careful work . .
CitedCudak v Lithuania ECHR 23-Mar-2010
Grand Chamber – The applicant alleged that there had been a violation of her right of access to a court, as guaranteed by Article 6-1 of the Convention.
The applicant was a secretary and switchboard operator employed in the Polish embassy in . .
CitedEl-Masri v The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ECHR 13-Dec-2012
(Grand Chamber) The applicant, a German national of Lebanese origin, alleged that he had been subjected to a secret rendition operation, namely that agents of the respondent State had arrested him, held him incommunicado, questioned and ill-treated . .
CitedAl Nashiri v Poland (Chamber Judgment) ECHR 24-Jul-2014
. .
See AlsoAl-Waheed v Ministry of Defence SC 17-Jan-2017
‘These two appeals arise out of actions for damages brought against the United Kingdom government by detainees, alleging unlawful detention and maltreatment by British forces. They are two of several hundred actions in which similar claims are made. . .

Cited by:
See AlsoBelhaj and Another v Straw and Others QBD 21-Jul-2017
The Defendants apply for a declaration that these are proceedings in which a closed material application may be made pursuant to section 6 of the 2013 Act. . .
See AlsoBelhaj and Another v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 1-Dec-2017
The claimants alleged that the defendants had been involved in their unlawful rendition in 2004 from Thailand to Libya, in particular now challenging the decision not to prosecute certain individuals. . .
See AlsoBelhaj and Another v Director of Public Prosecutions and Others Admn 15-Mar-2018
A claim that the DPP erred in her decision not to prosecute for alleged involvement in the unlawful rendition of the Claimants to Libya. . .
See AlsoBelhaj and Others v Director of Public Prosecutions and Others Admn 15-Mar-2018
Second judgment on the scope of privilege to which we have both contributed – inadvertent disclosure . .
See AlsoBelhaj and Another v Director of Public Prosecutions and Others Admn 3-May-2018
Incorrect disclosure of non-redacted material in closed hearing. . .

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 06 March 2021; Ref: scu.573213