What Is Extraterritoriality?

Extraterritoriality, also known as extraterritorial rights, is an exemption from local laws. That means that an individual with extraterritoriality who commits a crime in a particular country cannot be tried by the authorities of that country, although often she or he will still be subject to trial in his or her own country.

Today, ambassadors and their staffs, United Nations officials and offices, and ships that are sailing in international waters are among the people or spaces that may enjoy extraterritoriality.

Historically, however, the imperial powers often forced weaker states to grant extraterritorial rights to their citizens who were not diplomats - including soldiers, traders, Christian missionaries, etc. This was most famously the case in East Asia during the nineteenth century, where China and Japan were not formally colonized, but were subjugated to an extent by the western powers.

In China, the citizens of Great Britain, the United States, France, and later Japan had extraterritoriality under the unequal treaties. Great Britain was the first to impose such a treaty on China, in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War. In 1858, after Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet forced Japan to open several ports to ships from the United States, western powers rushed to established "most favored nation" status with Japan, which included extraterritoriality. In addition to Americans, citizens of Britain, France, Russia, and the Netherlands enjoyed extraterritorial rights in Japan after 1858.

Japan's government learned quickly how to wield power in this newly internationalized world, however. By 1899, after the Meiji Restoration, it had renegotiated its treaties with all of the western powers, and ended extraterritoriality for foreigners on Japanese soil. In addition, Japan and China granted each others' citizens extraterritorial rights, but when Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Chinese citizens lost those rights while Japan's extraterritoriality was expanded under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Second World War effectively ended the unequal treaties. After 1945, the imperial world order crumbled and extraterritoriality fell into disuse outside of diplomatic circles.