Marvel Civil War V: International and Interplanetary Law

We’re nearing the end of our series on Marvel’s Civil War event. This time we’re talking about the fact that the conflict spills outside of US territory and implicates aspects of international law even within US borders.

I. Extraterritorial Conflicts

A. Foreign Nationals

As in the real world, the United States in Earth-616 is watched fairly closely by other countries as something of a weather vane for world events. So when the federal government passed the SHRA, all eyes were keenly fixed on the US to see how that was going to play out, not only in the international superhuman community, but by foreign governments. Things get really interesting where the two overlap, such as with Dr. Doom and T’Challa.

For starters though, the writers seem largely cognizant of the fact that the SHRA’s effect outside of the US is pretty limited. When Ben Grimm realizes that he can’t support either side of the conflict in good conscience, he relocates to Paris under the correct assumption that it will be difficult for federal agents to make him do much of anything if he’s in France. A number of other characters discuss fleeing to Canada. But it should be noted that Grimm did register with the government before he moved, whereas a superhuman who did not could theoretically be in violation of the SHRA in the same way that a draft dodger might escape punishment but still be in violation of the law. So Grimm’s registration and subsequent self-imposed exile does not necessarily violate the law (unless participation in The Initiative is mandatory, which some stories suggest may be the case).

Beyond that, the writers raise the question of whether a superhuman temporary visitor (who wasn’t a head of state or otherwise qualified to diplomatic immunity) would be required to register. This is never resolved in-universe, but it would stand to reason that this would work in much the same way as similar laws interact with immigration status. In general, when the government requires someone to register, that duty only attaches when permanent residence (or employment of some kind) is established. So a vacationing or exchange student would probably not be required to register, but someone seeking refugee status, permanent residency (a “green card”) or citizenship (naturalization) would. Requiring temporary visitors to register would not only be an absolute hassle, but would probably piss off other nations by imposing arguably unnecessary and burdensome obligations on their citizens. Even given the anti-super fervor which swept the country, one can imagine Congress taking a measured approach here.

Finally, there is also the issue, mentioned above, that certain characters are both superhuman and highly placed in foreign governments. Victor Von Doom is the head of state of Latveria. T’Challa is the king of Wakanda. There’s also the Atlanteans, who in at least one case are diplomatic envoys (though their spies probably don’t count, as spies can be detained). All of these will be entitled to diplomatic immunity, and attempting to abrogate that—as War Machine does late in the series—would constitute an act of war which should probably have caused a far bigger international incident than it seems to have. Even more, a foreign head of state actively taking sides with an insurrection, as T’Challa does with the Anti-Registration forces, is just completely out of bounds. This would be on the same level as France assisting the American Colonies or Britain coming in on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War, i.e. it would immediately lead to a state of warfare between the US and the offending foreign power (NB: the Union threatened war if Britain recognized the Confederacy but Britain did not actually do so). The fact that T’Challa is a former Avenger is given far more weight to the resolution of this situation than seems appropriate, and why the US and Wakanda aren’t completely at each other’s throats is never adequately explored. Granted, it takes two to tango, and if T’Challa wants to let the thing slide, that’d help, but there’s no reason that US State Department would want to do that.

Then we come to Storm, aka Ororo Munroe, aka T’Challa’s wife and the reigning Queen of Wakanda, who happens to be a US citizen—in theory, anyway. It seems unlikely that she would be permitted to retain her citizenship after taking up her office in the Wakandan government, even though her official status is never worked out in any great detail. But as the Wakandan monarchy appears hereditary, it would seem that marrying T’Challa would invest her with at least some official political authority. So when federal troops attempt to arrest her when she returns to the US as part of their honeymoon political tour… it’s not entirely clear that 1) she is still subject to the SHRA given her questionable citizenship, or 2) why her status in the Wakandan government does not grant her diplomatic immunity. T’Challa certainly seems to take a dim view of the attempt.

Why the US should care about this is significantly less a question of law than practice. Ultimately, laws really are just customs that society has decided to enforce, but the fact that so few of us have any role in that process tends to make us forget this. But in international law, because there is no sovereign to enforce the laws, custom and practice are pretty important. So if the US is seen to be flouting international law by attempting to arrest foreign dignitaries… that’s going to cause a wide range of problems not only with the dignitaries in question but with just about every other country in the world. The State Department is going to have one hell of a time trying to explain to other countries why the government decided that any domestic political issue trumped long-established international law, and why it isn’t going to happen again.

B. Embassies

The other main international law issue here is that of embassies. Embassies are generally subject to a limited form of extraterritoriality under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, of which the US is a member. Essentially, while still technically the sovereign territory of the host nation, embassies remain under the jurisdiction of the represented nation, and the host nation may not enter without permission. This is why so many intelligence operations are centered around embassies: the host nation cannot come and go as it pleases. So if simply setting foot in an embassy without permission is a big deal—and it is—how much more is completely leveling one, as happens during the final battle of the series? Again, Wakanda seems to basically shrug this off, as T’Challa decides not to make a big deal out of it, but it’s remarkable that no other countries would say anything. We’re talking about the destruction of a foreign embassy on US soil which the government does not seem to have been able to prevent. That’s not going to give the international community warm and fuzzy feelings, and it’s entirely possible that other governments could use this incident as a pretense to beef up security at their own embassies in the US without the State Department being able to object as much as they otherwise might.

II. Interplanetary Law

We talked about this one back in Mailbag XIII. US jurisdiction extends to spacecraft outside the Earth’s atmosphere which are operating under the US flag, but not really much beyond that. However, the Inhumans, who live in the Blue Area of the Moon would probably be treated mostly like a foreign country, despite their extraplanetary location. They certainly seem to talk as if they should be treated as a foreign country. Black Bolt has imposed what amounts to a universal ban on earthlings hanging around the moon, which seems to amount to a territorial claim. While the US might not be all that happy about this—The whole moon? Really?—there doesn’t seem to be all that much that they can do about it, nor ultimately all that much incentive to either. The Inhumans don’t exactly have representation at the UN or any other international bodies, don’t seem to spend all that much time dirtside, and the US doesn’t have any ongoing presence on the moon, even in Earth-616. So really, Inhuman/US relations seem analogous to any other nation with which the US does not have formal relations. The fact that it takes a spacecraft to get there seems of little import.

III. Conclusion

So the SHRA and Civil War stories do seem to have a lot to do with international law, though again, such issues are frequently matters of custom (and politics) as much as law. The issues related to foreign nationals are not very well worked out, and the way the stories are told seem to make some of the more obvious solutions to those issues problematic. The stories seem to take the destruction of an embassy pretty lightly. But as in other contexts, the fact that some of the people with whom the stories deal are located outside Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t make as much difference as it might seem at first.

14 responses to “Marvel Civil War V: International and Interplanetary Law

  1. As an old X-Men fan, I must offer a minor correction: Storm is Ororo Monroe, rather than Aurora. 🙂

    • And Munroe rather than Monroe! Thank you for catching the error. I’ve corrected it in the post.

      • LOL, the Internet rule holds: when offering pedantic correction, you will always make a mistake of similar type. 🙂

        To be fair, though, her last name is rarely used, and always felt tacked-on to me.

  2. I’m entirely so Storm would automatically forfeit her citizenship upon marrying T’Challa. When Grace Kelly married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, and became the Princess of Monaco, she apparently retained dual US and Monégasque citizenships. I’m not sure if she wielded any actual governmental authority, but as you’ve admitted the same could be said of Storm.

    In a related (and somewhat verbose) question, under 8 USC 1481(a), a person can lose their nationality by performing one item on a list of actions “with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality”. Presumably serving as an ambassador would fall under (4)(b), namely “accepting, serving in, or performing the duties of any office, post, or employment under the government of a foreign state […] for which office, post, or employment an oath, affirmation, or declaration of allegiance is required;”. In the event a person accepted such a position explicitly without the intention to relinquishing nationality, would it be correct to assume that they would not lose their US citizenship? If that’s the case, were that person, for some reason, to be sent on diplomatic duty to the US, how would that affect the status of their diplomatic immunity?

  3. Ryan Davidson

    First of all, it’s not clear that Kelly took on any particular governmental responsibilities. In fact, it’s pretty clear that she had none, and if the Price had died first, she would not have succeeded him to the throne. But though her duties in Wakanda’s government are unclear, Storm seems to have some, and T’Challa does refer to her as a “head of state” in the comics. It’s entirely possible that the writers didn’t know what that means, or understand the difference between “chief of state” and “head of government,” i.e. the Queen of England is the UK’s chief of state, but the Prime Minister is the head of government and has all of the actual political authority. Wakanda doesn’t seem to observe that distinction, so it’s unclear what Storm’s role really is.

    The State Department actually discusses possible expatriation related to taking on a second citizenship here. It says that getting married or nationalizing elsewhere is not taken as evidence that one wishes to renounce one’s US citizenship, but that accepting a policy-level position in a foreign government is. Still, whatever Storm’s role, “policy level” does seem to describe it, so simply taking the office could plausibly be interpreted by State as announcing her intent to relinquish her citizenship. She could maybe contest that, but I can’t see a court being all that excited about letting her have her cake and eat it too.

  4. Storm’s status would depend upon how she claims diplomatic immunity. If she is part of the embassy’s “diplomatic staff”, Article 8 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that as a citizen of the host state she may not be part of the diplomatic staff without approval from the host state unless the host state grants permission which may be withdrawn at any time. So, the State Department could with the wave of a hand make her diplomatic immunity go away. On the other hand, if she gained her immunity through her marriage to a person who enjoys diplomatic immunity, the most that can happen is for her to be declared persona non-grata and asked to leave the country ASAP.

  5. If memory serves Namor actually led military forces in support of Captain America during the events of Civil War, possibly the clearest act of war short of declaring war, yet I don’t think the U.S government ever considered any kind of reasonable retaliation. Perhaps I should offer a course in International Relations for the writers at Marvel.

    • Actually, no, it wasn’t like that. I’m going from memory but Atlantis was treated as a foreign state in Civil War, particularly in the Civil War Frontline series. As I recall, Wonderman was sent in to investigate an Atlantean spy network operting on U.S. soil but when he got there all the Atlanteans had been killed by Norman Osborn (as the Green Goblin). This was a diplomatic incident and because Atlantis had no embassy in the U.S. an emissary was sent from Atlantis to demand an explanation. An assassination attempt against the emissary by Norman Osborn was foiled at the last second and the emissary threatened to go to war but was talked out of it. Norman Osborn was questioned by police as to his motives and we were left with the impression that somebody had used mind control on Norman Osborn because they wanted to start a war between Atlantis and the U.S. The story was no doubt picked up elsewhere and maybe somebody else can explain what happened next. I don’t remember Atlanteans having any role in Civil War outside of the Civil War Frontline series.

      • Nope, at the ‘climactic’ battle in the main Civil War story Namor led a force of Atlanteans on the anti-registration side. It’s even mentioned on the Marvel website if you want to look.

      • I think Atlanteans consider the entire ocean their territory so the real question is whether they actually enter what they considered to be American territory or if Captain America call them off before they did. I remember Namor voicing support for Captain America but I don’t remember him ever getting out of the water and joining the fight.

      • First, sorry. Didn’t mean to sound snarky before.

        “I think Atlanteans consider the entire ocean their territory so the real question is whether they actually enter what they considered to be American territory or if Captain America call them off before they did.”

        They were visibly in New York City which, though it is indeed very close to water, is still on soil (American soil). Aside from that it doesn’t matter. All states that border on water have control of those waters up to a certain distance*. Keeping that in mind, even if Namor had not landed on American soil (which we can see he did), it would still be a definite invasion backing an anti-government faction.

        *It’s true that this can lead to dubious claims about rocks and islands, dubious counterclaims and nationalist rhetoric (most famously near China at the moment) but the waters of the U.S are pretty much settled with clear ownership and Namor was definitely in U.S waters.

  6. On the question or Storms status, while Ororo Munroe was born an American citizen in New York, I have never seen any evidence that anyone beyond Storm herself knows that she is in fact that particular Ororo Munroe. The US would probably have presumed her dead after the Cairo bombing that killed her parents when she was six.

    A further complication is that Ororo may have been born with dual citizenship as her mother was not an American citizen.

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  8. Wakanda and the US letting the matter drop becomes more understandable if you realise just how far more advanced Wakanda is technologically than the rest of the world. their computers can hack other computers with ease, and their own are completely impervious to hacking. It’s quite possible the US let it drop since Wakanda may actually be able to win a confrontation- or at least ti would be far too close for the politicians egos. As for T’Challa letting it drop? similar analysis. he’d rather not fight the country his wife is from, specially when the outcome would be far from certain.

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