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To enable them to exercise their office unhindered, heads of state enjoy full immunity against legal proceedings abroad. Heads of government and foreign ministers can also claim immunity when travelling abroad. In certain circumstances, this also applies to other members of government in the exercise of their duties.
While abroad, serving heads of state enjoy absolute immunity against criminal proceedings in all actions that otherwise would have been subject to the jurisdiction of these states. The immunity of heads of state is a principle embodied in customary international law.
When a state expressly waives the immunity of its head of state, the head of state cannot invoke immunity.
When a head of state leaves office, immunity no longer holds. A former head of state can claim immunity at most for actions undertaken in the exercise of official functions. If such a connection does not exist, the former head of state can be legally prosecuted.
Heads of state have no immunity in the case of war crimes. The statutes of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunals for for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda make provision for the fact that a defendant's official position for qualified war crimes, e.g. as head of state, does not relieve such person of criminal responsibility.
The case of Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, revived the debate over the criminal responsibility of former heads of state for qualified crimes committed while in office. General Pinochet was held not to be immune from arrest for alleged acts of torture.
Immunity of states and their property
In Europe, the European Convention on State Immunity of 16 May 1972 regulates protection of the property of foreign states. Non-member states of the Council of Europe may also accede to this convention. Very few states have ratified the convention. In Switzerland, the convention entered into force on 7 October 1982.
whether the foreign state acted in the exercise of sovereign authority (sovereign act or act of state, "acta iure imperii") or
whether it acted as a subject of private law equal to a private person (legal transactions, "acta iure gestionis").