The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law (1758)

Emmerich de Vattel

Of the Concern a Nation May Have in the Actions of Her Citizens

§ 71. The sovereign ought to revenge the injuries of the state, and to protect the citizens.
WE have seen in the preceding chapters what are the common duties of nations towards each other, — how they ought mutually to respect each other, and to abstain from all injury and all offence, — and how justice and equity ought to reign between them in their whole conduct. But hitherto we have only considered the actions of the body of the nation, of the state, of the sovereign. Private persons who are members of one nation, may offend and ill-treat the citizens of another, and may injure a foreign sovereign: — it remains for us to examine what share a state may have in the actions other citizens, and what are the rights and obligations of sovereigns in this respect.

Whoever offends the state, injures its rights, disturbs its tranquillity, or does it a prejudice in any manner whatsoever, declares himself its enemy, and exposes himself to be justly punished for it. Whoever uses a citizen ill, indirectly offends the state, which is bound to protect this citizen; and the sovereign of the latter should avenge his wrongs, punish the aggressor, and, if possible, oblige him to make full reparation; since otherwise the citizen would not obtain the great end of the civil association, which is, safety.

§ 72. He ought not to suffer his subjects to offend other nations or their citizens.
But, on the other hand, the nation or the sovereign ought not to suffer the citizens to do an injury to the subjects of another state, much less to offend that state itself: and this, not only because no sovereign ought to permit those who are under his command to violate the precepts of the law of nature, which forbids all injuries, — but also because nations ought mutually to respect each other, to abstain from all offence, from all injury, from all wrong, — in a word, from every thing that may be of prejudice to others. If a sovereign, who might keep his subjects within the rules of justice and peace, suffers them to injure a foreign nation either in its body or its members, he does no less injury to that nation than if he injured it himself. In short, the safety of the state, and that of human society, requires this attention from every sovereign. If you let loose the reins to your subjects against foreign nations, these will behave in the same manner to you; and, instead of that friendly intercourse which nature has established between all men, we shall see nothing but one vast and dreadful scene of plunder between nation and nation.

§ 73. The acts of individuals are not to be imputed to the nation.
However, as it is impossible for the best regulated state, or for the most vigilant and absolute sovereign, to model at his pleasure all the actions of his subjects, and to confine them on every occasion to the most exact obedience, it would be unjust to impute to the nation or the sovereign every fault committed by the citizens. We ought not, then, to say, in general, that we have received an injury from a nation because we have received it from one of its members.

§ 74. unless it approves or ratifies them.
But, if a nation or its chief approves and ratifies the act of the individual, it then becomes a public concern; and the injured party is to consider the nation as the real author of the injury, of which the citizen was perhaps only the instrument.

§ 75. Conduct to be observed by the offended party.
If the offended state has in her power the individual who has done the injury, she may without scruple bring him to justice and punish him. If he has escaped and returned to his own country, she ought to apply to his sovereign to have justice done in the case.

§ 76. Duty of the aggressor’s sovereign.
And, since the latter ought not to suffer his subjects to molest the subjects of other states, or to do them an injury, much less to give open, audacious offence to foreign powers, he ought to compel the transgressor to make reparation for the damage or injury, if possible, or to inflict on him an exemplary punishment; or, finally, according the nature and circumstances of the case, to deliver him up to the offended state, to be there brought to justice. This is pretty generally observed with respect to great crimes, which are equally contrary to the laws and safety of all nations. Assassins, incendiaries, and robbers, are seized everywhere, at the desire of the sovereign in whose territories the crime was committed, and are delivered up to his justice. The matter is carried still farther in states that are more closely connected by friendship and good neighborhood. Even in cases of ordinary transgressions, which are only subjects of civil prosecution, either with a view to the recovery of damages, or the infliction of a slight civil punishment, the subjects of two neighboring states are reciprocally obliged to appear before the magistrate of the place where they are accused of having failed in their duty. Upon a requisition of that magistrate, called Letter Rogatory, they are summoned in due form by their own magistrates, and obliged to appear. An admirable institution, by means of which many neighboring states live together in peace, and seem to form only one republic! This is in force throughout all Switzerland. As soon as the Letters Rogatory are issued in form, the superior of the accused is bound to enforce them. It belongs not to him to examine whether the accusation be true or false: he is to presume on the justice of his neighbor, and not suffer any doubts on his own part to impair an institution so well calculated to preserve harmony and good understanding between the states. However, if by constant experience he should find that his subjects are oppressed by the neighboring magistrates who summon them before their tribunals, it would undoubtedly be right in him to reflect on the protection due to his people, and to refuse the rogatories till satisfaction were given for the abuses committed, and proper steps taken to prevent a repetition of them. But, in such case, it would be his duty to allege his reasons, and set them forth in the clearest point of view.

§ 77. If he refuses justice, he becomes a party in the fault and offence.
The sovereign who refuses to cause reparation to be made for the damage done by his subject, or to punish the offender, or, finally, to deliver him up, renders himself in some measure an accomplice in the injury, and becomes responsible for it. But, if he delivers up either the property of the offender, as an indemnification, in cases that will admit of pecuniary compensation — or his person, in order that he may suffer the punishment due to his crime, the offended party has no further demand on him. King Demetrius, having delivered to the Romans those who had killed their ambassador, the senate sent them back, resolving to reserve to themselves the liberty of punishing that crime, by avenging it on the king himself, or on his dominions.1 If this was really the case and if the king had no share in the murder of the Roman ambassador, the conduct of the senate was highly unjust, and only worthy of men who sought but a pretext to cover their ambitious enterprises.

§ 78. Another case in which the nation is guilty of the crimes of the citizens.
Finally, there is another case where the nation in general is guilty of the crimes of its members. That is, when, by its manners, and by the maxims of its government, it accustoms and authorize its citizens indiscriminately to plunder and maltreat foreigners, to make inroads into the neighboring countries, etc. Thus, the nation of the Usbecks is guilty of all the robberies committed by the individuals of which it is composed. The princes whose subjects are robbed and massacred, and whose lands are infested by those robbers, may justly level their vengeance against the nation at large.2 Nay, more; all nations have a right to enter into a league against such a people, to repress them, and to treat them as the common enemies of the human race. The Christian nations would be no less justifiable in forming a confederacy against the states of Barbary, in order to destroy those haunts of pirates, with whom the love of plunder, or the fear of just punishment, is the only rule of peace and war. But these piratical adventurers are wise enough to respect those who are most able to chastise them; and the nations that are able to keep the avenues of a rich branch of commerce open for themselves, are not sorry to see them shut against others.


     1.    See Polybius, quoted by Barbeyrac, in his notes on Grotius, book iii, chap. xxiv. § vi.
     2.    It was on this ground that the French nation so recently took possession of Algiers. — C.