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I just read this news where a US federal judge ordered North Korea to pay $500 million:

Judge Howell ordered the payment, and wrote: "North Korea is liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier, and the injuries to his mother and father, Fred and Cindy Warmbier."

Without regards to the actual case and the particular countries involved, I am wondering how it is even possible that a court in one country orders the whole another country to do something, let alone when the two countries do not even formally have diplomatic relations.

In strong contrast to the case above, the UK media recently overtly demonstrated disobedience of a New Zealand court name suppression order: a man arrested in NZ for allegedly committing an appalling crime was granted temporary name suppression, and that was ignored by the UK media. I am wondering if there is anything that would stop a New Zealand court to hold the UK to account just like the US court just did North Korea.

So, in general, are there any internationally recognised laws/treaties/protocols etc. that define if/when a court in one country can assert jurisdiction over the whole another country and hold it to account? Or is that completely up to the court and whatever extremes it dares to come up with?

One example that comes into my mind is the European Court of Human Rights: if a country signed the European Convention on Human Rights, it can be held to account by the court. But what conventions, if any, can be applied to the two cases above?

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    The USA asserts jurisdiction over pretty much anything that any of its citizens is involved in, and a huge amount of other things that quite frankly they have no business looking at. It is unsurprising that a judge there will presume to act similarly. I think this question is much more about politics than law, as the answer is effectively "courts and countries will do whatever they can get away with, until another bigger court or country stomps on their doing it". – Nij Dec 25 '18 at 10:18
  • @Nij a properly warranted statement that this question is more about politics than law would be accepted as the answer. For instance, such an answer could show that there are no international laws/treaties that would allow a court to hold another country to account, and therefore what the court does is politics. – Greendrake Dec 25 '18 at 10:23
  • North Korea may not have public relations with the US now, but this judgement could be collected against NK if that changes, or NK puts assets in a country that would allow the US to seize them to pay the damages. Reparations, including this judgement, could even be part of a deal between the US and NK. It's ultimately a political question, but the court decision isn't entirely toothless. – IllusiveBrian Dec 25 '18 at 16:30
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Without regards to the actual case and the particular countries involved, I am wondering how it is even possible that a court in one country orders the whole another country to do something, let alone when the two countries do not even formally have diplomatic relations.

The main statute that is relevant in the U.S. is the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA) of 1976. In general foreign states are immune from liability in U.S. courts (and most courts of the developed world) subject to certain exceptions, the most common of which are as follows:

  • Foreign state waives its immunity explicitly or implicitly

  • Commercial activities by foreign state in or directly affecting the United States Property taken in violation of international law is at issue

  • Rights in U.S. property acquired by succession or gift or rights in immovable property situated in the United States are at issue

  • Money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury, death or damage to or loss of property caused by its tortious act or omission, occurring in the United States

  • Enforcement of an arbitration agreement made by the foreign state with or for a private party

  • Money damages are sought against a foreign state for personal injury or death that was caused by an act of torture, extrajudicial killing, aircraft sabotage, hostage taking or their support, if the foreign state is a designated sponsor of terrorism

  • Admiralty lawsuit to enforce a maritime lien against a vessel or cargo of the foreign state, based on commercial activity

The exception above in bold was probably the one applied in the North Korean case. The only countries to which that exception applies are North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Iran. (There are also separate similar rules related to countries with whom the U.S. is in a declared war.)

There is sporadic ongoing constitutional separation of powers litigation in the U.S. over whether a FISA authorized lawsuit can proceed over the objections of the President as expressed by the U.S. State Department. The argument that FISA is unconstitutional in this context is that diplomacy and foreign policy is exclusively an executive branch power to the exclusion of Congress and the judiciary, but for the most part, this extreme position has been rejected in recent years. A conservative U.S. Supreme Court, however, could revisit this question (conservative judges tend to favor more absolute executive branch authority in foreign affairs).

Once a party wins, however, the winner needs to identify foreign assets subject to the jurisdiction of the court from which to collect the judgment, such as gold deposits or U.S. governmental or corporate bonds or ships docked in U.S. ports, owned by the country.

In strong contrast to the case above, the UK media recently overtly demonstrated disobedience of a New Zealand court name suppression order: a man arrested in NZ for allegedly committing an appalling crime was granted temporary name suppression, and that was ignored by the UK media. I am wondering if there is anything that would stop a New Zealand court to hold the UK to account just like the US court just did North Korea.

In the New Zealand case, the remedy would be to bring suit against the particular newspapers or reporters involved, rather than the state. But, the U.K. might not enforce those judgments if those defendants lost, so enforcement might be limited to New Zealand based assets and persons, and then, only if the New Zealand court found that it had jurisdiction over the defendants under New Zealand law. So, this isn't really analogous.

So, in general, are there any internationally recognised laws/treaties/protocols etc. that define if/when a court in one country can assert jurisdiction over the whole another country and hold it to account? Or is that completely up to the court and whatever extremes it dares to come up with?

See above in the U.S. case. Most countries have similar statutes or case law to FISA which codified the case law applying customary international law at the time that it was adopted.

One example that comes into my mind is the European Court of Human Rights: if a country signed the European Convention on Human Rights, it can be held to account by the court. But what conventions, if any, can be applied to the two cases above?

The European Court of Human Rights case is one of consent to the jurisdiction of an international body by treaty.

Countries like the UK and NZ have statutes or treaties governing when a foreign judgment (e.g. a judgment from a New Zealand court) will be recognized domestically. There are also usually laws governing when people present in one state will be extradited to another, usually in the form of a bilateral treaty between the affected states.

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    So, essentially, it turns out that it is not illegal (from the point of view of international law) for a country to routinely allow its courts to assert jurisdiction over whole another country just by making up an internal law allowing it (like FISA), correct? If, say, the parliament of New Zealand passes a law saying that the UK owes it $100b, that would technically face no international legal issues but political? – Greendrake Dec 27 '18 at 2:20
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    @Greendrake International law is a different creature from domestic law. Calling it law at all is somewhat dubious. Ultimately, law comes down to what somebody's domestic courts will honor and what can actually be enforced. There is no such thing as universally agreed and binding and enforceable international law in the sense that there is with domestic law. – ohwilleke Dec 27 '18 at 2:34

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