Few topics of international law speak to the imagination as much as international immunities. Questions pertaining to immunity from jurisdiction or execution under international law surface on a frequent basis before national courts, including at the highest levels of the judicial branch and before international courts or tribunals.

The several regimes relevant to the immunities of the State itself, and of international organisations created by States, and of individuals acting under the authority of the State or of international organisations, are governed by multiple different bodies of international law, all of which are amenable in principle to analysis in terms of the classic enumeration of sources in Article 38(1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The main treaties on immunities of international organisations took shape very shortly after the adoption of the UN Charter, which provides in Article 105(1): ‘The Organization shall enjoy in the territory of each of its Members such legal capacity as may be necessary for the exercise of its functions and the fulfillment of its purposes.’ Article 105(2) provides: ‘Representatives of the Members of the United Nations and officials of the Organization shall similarly enjoy such privileges and immunities as are necessary for the independent exercise of their functions in connection with the Organization.’

With regard to state immunities, the ICJ’s Jurisdictional Immunities case (ICJ 143) affirms a duty of States to afford immunities as a matter of international law, not merely as an act of grace, discretion or policy.

As far as diplomatic and consular immunities are concerned, reciprocity is a well- established feature of the international legal regimes. In Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran (ICJ 64), the International Court of Justice took note of the ‘reciprocal obligations’ observed throughout history towards diplomatic envoys and embassies and pointed to the ‘self-contained regime’ for dealing with abusive conduct by persons enjoying immunities.

Individuals who personify a State or represent their State in diplomatic relations have been accorded personal inviolability within the receiving State and immunity from legal process for many centuries and across all civilisations. Legal analysis of immunities applicable to such individuals takes account of differing considerations for different categories of persons (for example, incumbent or former heads of State and government, high-level officials, diplomats, consuls, staff of missions, international civil servants and family members) in their diverse forms of activity (for example, official or commercial), and also different modes of potential liability (for example, criminal or civil). Given the multiplicity of factors, this analysis can be a complex exercise, involving the interplay of numerous domestic and international sources of law. Further complications arise by virtue of the fact that immunity is not automatic – in the modern era it needs to be claimed on behalf of the State or organisation under whose authority the individual acts, and it can also be waived.

This Research Guide is intended as a starting point for research on Immunities. It provides the basic legal materials available in the Peace Palace Library, both in print and electronic format. Handbooks, leading articles, bibliographies, periodicals, serial publications and documents of interest are presented in the Selective Bibliography section. Links to the PPL Catalogue are inserted. The Library's subject headings (keywords) xxx are instrumental for searching through the Catalogue. Special attention is given to our subscriptions on databases, e-journals, e-books and other electronic resources. Finally, this Research Guide features links to relevant websites and other online resources of particular interest.


Sources of international law



Reference works

Selected books and articles

Periodicals, serial publications