5.3.4  Legal Issues which Cross National Boundaries

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/534.htm)

Countries do not recognise each other's legislation, and this creates problems for law-enforcement, enforcement of contracts and redress for grievances.

If a country wants a suspect to be transferred from another country, to stand trial in the jurisdiction under which the offence was committed, the two countries have to have bilateral extradition agreements.  There are so many countries in the world that it would be very difficult to have bilateral extradition agreements between each and every one, so criminals can exploit the gaps in the existing network of treaties to try to escape justice – as with the famous example of British train robber Ronnie Biggs living for a long time in Brazil.[1]

National boundaries are impediments to effective law-enforcement.  Criminals can commit crimes over the Internet; the victim and some of the evidence are in one country while the criminal is in another; a computer that contains a lot of evidence might be in yet another country.  This is an increasingly common problem, but even without the Internet there are problems when criminals commit crimes in several places and the police may have no effective mechanisms for pooling their information.

Contracts between people and organisations in different countries currently have to be written in the law of one of the countries involved, so that suitable enforcement, jurisdiction and penalties can be available.  The need to negotiate different contract terms across different countries adds to the cost of doing business, particularly for small and medium-sized companies, though some European and international guidelines are becoming available.[2]

There is no adequate legal framework for redressing individual grievances between people in different countries.  To illustrate this point, it is worth comparing compensation claims for two huge industrial pollution disasters: it was possible for America to get substantial compensation from BP very quickly for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, but it took 17 years for the inhabitants of Bhopal to get any compensation from Union Carbide for the 15,000 deaths caused by cyanide gas in 1984 – and the amount of that compensation was still being challenged more than 25 years after the accident.[3]

The number of transactions between countries continues to increase and there is no quick or easy answer to the legal problems that they present.  The increasing need for co-operation is beginning to be addressed:

·      Co-operation in law enforcement is increasing (particularly in exchange of information on terrorist activity).

·      Higher-level courts are being set up and are expanding their scope.

·      Supra-national legislation is being agreed.

·      Countries are harmonising their legislation to conform to higher-level agreements.

As described below, these measures are being taken for groups of countries ( and globally (

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[1] In a report dated 18 November 2011, entitled Who is the real Ronnie Biggs?, the BBC described the way in which he escaped to Brazil in order to escape British justice.  This report was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15778446.

[2] Professor Hugh Beale gave a lecture at the LSE on 13 January 2011, entitled A European Contract Law: a cuckoo in the nest?, and his slides were available in May 2014 at http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20110113t1830vNT.aspx.  He referred to a “Common Frame of Reference” and an “Optional Instrument", which embody the concept of helping people to draft contracts that cross country borders within Europe.  He also mentioned international ‘soft law’: “Unidroit Principles for International Commercial Contracts”.

[3] Joan Smith wrote an article making this point, which was published by The Independent on 20 June 2010 under the title What about compensation for Bhopal?  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/joan-smith/joan-smith-what-about-compensation-for-bhopal-2005296.html.