Protection of American Citizens Abroad - Extraterritoriality

Chinese authorities in 1821 charged a seaman, Francis Terranova, a crewman aboard an American merchant vessel trading in Canton, with having killed a woman. Her death was accidental. An earthen pot had been knocked overboard, striking the victim, who was in a boat below. Neither the ship's captain nor crew believed Terranova was guilty, but the woman's family was offered a cash settlement. Chinese authorities, however, stepped in to insist on a trial that was held on the deck of the American vessel. The proceedings were brief. The magistrate heard the charges and promptly sentenced Terranova to death by strangulation. No testimony on behalf of the defendant was allowed. The outraged Americans initially refused to surrender Terranova, but they relented when authorities embargoed any further trade. After Terranova died, trade resumed.

Incidents such as this prompted the United States to go along with European nations in negotiating treaties that granted extraterritorial rights to Americans in China. Reduced to essentials, extraterritorial rights exempted Americans from the operation of Chinese law and courts. If an American in China committed either a criminal or a civil offense, he could theoretically be charged and tried in an American court. As a practical matter, this proved virtually impossible.

China was not alone in granting extraterritorial rights. Other countries in the Middle East and Asia signed similar treaties. None of them, of course, did so willingly. They capitulated in the face of the superior power of British or French forces. Americans shared these rights, largely because their government proved adept at negotiating treaties that embodied the advantages Europe had won.

Extraterritoriality was not destined to survive very long (except as a special privilege known today as diplomatic immunity). The system was doomed by the resurgent power of the "Third World" states. It was gone everywhere by the end of World War II. An American in Saudi Arabia, for example, may not seek refuge in his own nation's laws if he violates his host's dress codes or prohibitions against consumption of alcohol. He will be subject to the full weight of the host nation's system of justice.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: