Can a country arrest a sitting president from another country while he is traveling, as president of that country? I read somewhere that it is not allowed, but I am not sure where it is written. This is not limited to the United States, more of a worldwide question.

Where is it written that it cannot be done?


The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations codifies essentially every country in the world promising not to do this kind of thing. This protection is extended not just to heads of state, but to all diplomats their staff and their families. It is commonly called diplomatic immunity.

Of course international law is only as powerful as nations allow it to be, so if a leading nation like the US or China abused a less globally active one like Somalia or Papua New Guinea there wouldn't be expected to be any direct meaningful repercussions.

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    Well, if the prime minister of Papua New Guinea came to visit the US and the US arrested him and threw him in jail, it's surely true that PNG would be in no position to declare war or anything like that. But there would surely be a huge international outcry. Even countries that didn't like the PM of PNG would probably be very concerned about the precedent. It might, I suppose, depend on just WHY the US arrested him. Hard to imagine a reason with the current PM of PNG, but I was just using the country you mentioned in your hypothetical.
    – Jay
    May 4 '18 at 21:18
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    @Jay I'm failing to find the reference where I saw this, but one exception to diplomatic immunity is exigent circumstances, so a diplomat or even head of state could be arrested in order to prevent an imminent crime or stop one in progress. May 7 '18 at 11:39

There are different answers, depending on what you mean by "can".

A nation is sovereign, and so "can" do anything within its borders. The only way to force a country to do something is the use of force, i.e. defeat the country in a war.

But there are various rules, norms and expectations. Among these is the immunity for high ranking government officials, except in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is the opinion of the International court of Justice that high ranking government representatives have limited immunity while they are in government. See, for example, the case of the issue of an arrest warrant against the minister of foreign affairs of Congo by a Belgian Magistrate. The ICJ decided that the arrest warrant "constituted violations of a legal obligation of the Kingdom of Belgium towards the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in that they failed to respect the immunity from criminal jurisdiction and the inviolability which the incumbent Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Republic of the Congo enjoyed under international law."

The best known situation is the case of Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor was President of Liberia during the conflict with Sierra Leone. In 2003 the Special Court of Sierra Leone (a body set up the UN) issued a warrant for his arrest and while Mr Taylor was at a meeting in Ghana, they served Ghana with the Warrant. The SCSL is a body that is capable of derogating the usual rights to immunity, in the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nevertheless the Ghanaians did not act on the warrant and Mr Taylor returned to Liberia.

  • I believe Karl Dönitz was arrested while he was president of Nazi Germany.
    – user11249
    May 4 '18 at 21:45
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    @Carpetsmoker the Allies never recognized the Flensburg government as the government of Germany, so from their POV they were not arresting a president or head of state.
    – SJuan76
    May 4 '18 at 21:58
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    @SJuan76: Also, they were the victors in the war, so they could basically do whatever they wanted - see e.g. Nuremburg Trials.
    – jamesqf
    May 5 '18 at 18:24

This UN press release states that a "A Head of State" ... "enjoy immunity and inviolability". Since most Presidents that would be travelling on diplomativ business hold the role of Head of State then they can not be arrested unless the state or they waive diplomatic immunity which is highly unlikely to happen.

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