Lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against China over COVID-19 violate international law

By Huang Jin
The recent lawsuits against China over COVID-19 filed in U.S. courts are not just untenable, but constitute a gross violation of international law and China’s national sovereignty.
Since March, some senators, government officials, media outlets, think tanks and non-governmental organizations in the U.S. have hyped up absurd arguments against China, claiming that China should be held accountable and compensate other countries for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such instigation has led to multiple legal actions against Chinese government over COVID-19 in the U.S., all demanding accountability and huge compensation from China.
According to the U.S. media, the Attorney General for the State of Missouri filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri, demanding that the Chinese government take responsibility and make compensations for the global pandemic. This is an extreme rare case as it doesn’t always happen that a regional government of a country tries to hold a sovereign state accountable through a domestic court.
At present, relevant scientific issues revolving around the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic are gradually turning into international political and public opinion topics requesting China to take responsibility and make compensations, becoming a weapon for international anti-China forces to manipulate public opinions.
The lawsuits against China over the COVID-19 pandemic can be regarded as a battle between municipal law of certain countries and the universally applicable international law.
The current lawsuits filed in the U.S. against the Chinese government are all based on municipal laws of the U.S.
As a matter of fact, those who attempt to sue a sovereign foreign state and handle affairs between countries through domestic court and abuse of municipal law in total disregard of universally recognized international law are actually using municipal law to confront international law, using domestic rule of law to compete with international rule of law, overturning international order with domestic order, and substituting unilateralism for multilateralism.
Such despicable and yet typical acts of the U.S. are the results of the country’s long-standing tradition to pursue power politics and hegemonism, which represent grave destruction of the international system with the United Nations (UN) at the core established after World War II.
The Peace of Westphalia, established at the Congress of Westphalia between 1643 and 1648, stipulated the principle of independence and equality of sovereign state. After World War II, the basic principle of international law was later reaffirmed in Article 2 of Chapter I of the UN Charter.
“The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members,” said the UN Charter. Sovereign equality was stressed in the first of all the principles the organization and its members shall act in accordance with.
On the basis of the principle, a sovereign state handling matters according to its sovereignty shall not be compelled by the dictates of any other authority, and allows no external interference; any other state or authority has no right to exercise its own sovereignty in a sovereign state; the exertion of sovereignty rights of a sovereign state shall only be restricted on a voluntary basis.
In addition, a sovereign state shall not be forced into submitting international disputes concerning it to arbitration or judicature, and its acts and property are not subject to the jurisdiction of courts of a foreign country.
The integrity of a country’s national sovereignty is inviolable. No authority can weaken the national sovereignty of a sovereign state or deprive it of its national sovereignty.
It can be seen that the ludicrous lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against the Chinese government, especially the one filed by the Attorney General for the State of Missouri in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri, in fact constitute serious violation of China’s national sovereignty, run counter to the universally recognized principle regarding national sovereignty stated in the UN Charter, and represent completely unlawful act that goes against international law.
In accordance with the principle, a state and its property enjoy immunity from jurisdiction and enforcement in foreign courts. In other words, courts of a country shall not accept and hear lawsuit in which a foreign country is the defendant or the property of a foreign country is the subject matter unless the foreign country concerned agrees.
Obviously, because China enjoys sovereign immunity, U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over China or its property. Hence they cannot accept and hear lawsuits filed by American companies or individuals against the Chinese government, including the civil lawsuit filed against China by Missouri Attorney General.
Although some countries in the world support restrictive immunity, which means the immunity of a foreign state in their courts does not extend to suits based on its commercial or private conduct, a considerable number of countries insist absolute immunity, so does China.
The efforts of Chinese government to fight against COVID-19 are sovereign acts or public acts rather than commercial conduct. In this case, the country still enjoys sovereign immunity and the U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over it.
(Huang Jin is president of the Chinese Society of International Law.)

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