‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’: Recent developments regarding the immunities of heads of state and government

Event date
17 February 2022
Event time
12:45 - 14:00
Oxford week
HT 5
Online via Zoom
Philippa Webb, Professor of Public International Law

If you wish to participate in this (remote) seminar, RSVP is necessary. Please complete the Registration Form before noon on Wednesday 16 February (please note that if you register after noon, a link may not be sent to you).  Prior to the Thursday seminar, you will be sent a Zoom link to join.

Is a head of state untouchable in foreign courts, regardless of the nature of the allegation against him or her? And how much of that protection remains after he or she leaves office? An interesting feature of English law – which is not shared by the US for example – is that cases involving current and former heads of state not only concern questions of customary international law but also raise issues of diplomatic immunity. Under s. 20(1) of the State Immunity Act, subject to “any necessary modifications, the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 applies to “a sovereign or other head of State … as it applies to the head of a diplomatic mission”. It is not so easy to draw an analogy between the diplomat posted to the receiving state and the head of state who may occasionally come to the UK on an official visit. It is also not clear what “necessary modifications” were envisaged. The House of Lords in Pinochet (No. 3) observed that “it is hard to resist the suspicion that something has gone wrong” in the drafting of the legislation. I will address recent developments in English law in cases against current and former heads of state and look forward to discussing where the lines should be drawn in this contested area of law.

Philippa Webb is Professor of Public International Law at King’s College London and a barrister at Twenty Essex. Previously, Philippa served as the Special Assistant and Legal Officer to Judge Rosalyn Higgins GBE QC during her Presidency of the International Court of Justice and held positions in the International Criminal Court and United Nations Headquarters. She is on the Public International Law Advisory Panel of the British Institute of International & Comparative Law and previously served on the Board of the European Society of International Law and the International Advisory Panel for the American Law Institute’s Restatement Fourth, Foreign Relations Law of the United States. Her publications include: The Right to a Fair Trial in International Law (2020, with Amal Clooney) with the accompanying travaux préparatoires to Article 14 of the ICCPR (2021), Oppenheim's International Law: United Nations (2017, with Rosalyn Higgins, Dapo Akande, Sandy Sivakumaran, and James Sloan), The Law of State Immunity (2015, with Lady Hazel Fox QC) and International Judicial Integration and Fragmentation (2015). Her work has been cited by the leading national courts in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and South Africa. Philippa is on the editorial boards of the International & Comparative Law Quarterly, the Leiden Journal of International Law, the Journal of International Criminal Justice and the Oxford University Undergraduate Law Journal, and on the board of the Clooney Foundation for Justice.


Due to the current public health emergency, the PIL Discussion Group series for 2021-2022 continues to be held online. RSVP is necessary for each event. A link to the Registration Form will be available on the relevant event page prior to each event. Please complete this form to register your attendance and, prior to the event, you will be sent a Zoom link to join the discussion. Please note that if you complete the form after the deadline of noon on the preceding Wednesday, you may not receive the link to join.

The Public International Law Discussion Group at the University of Oxford is a key focal point for PIL@Oxford and hosts regular speaker events. Topics involve contemporary and challenging issues in international law. Speakers include distinguished international law practitioners, academics, and legal advisers from around the world.

PIL Discussion Group Convenors: Xiaotian Yu and Natasha Holcroft-Emmess

The Discussion Group's meetings are part of the programme of the British Branch of the International Law Association and are supported by the Law Faculty and Oxford University Press.

The speaker will commence at 12:45pm UK Time and speak for around forty minutes, allowing about twenty-five minutes for questions and discussion. The meeting should conclude before 2:00pm UK Time.

Practitioners, academics and students from within and outside the University of Oxford are all welcome.

Found within

Public International Law