One of the greatest challenges in protecting a global workforce and training travelers and personnel undertaking overseas assignments is getting them to understand that the individual rights they enjoy in their home country don’t travel with them overseas. This is particularly true of Americans who are imbued from an early age with the concept of individual freedoms and civil rights. These are noble qualities that are unfortunately absent in much of the world.
When Americans and other citizens of western democracies travel abroad for the most part their individual rights do not travel with them. In a foreign country you are subject to local laws whether you agree with them or not and if you break them there is very little your embassy can do to assist you. Concepts like innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, fair and speedy trial and so forth are alien in many foreign countries. The embassy or consulate may be able to assist with finding you legal representation and will visit you to check on your health and well being but will likely be powerless to assist you beyond that. You could languish for weeks or months in confinement before even seeing a judge. This is more a concerning in developing nations and less so in other democracies – although Amanda Knox who was tried for murder in Italy would probably disagree with that statement. Regardless of your opinion of Knox’s innocence or guilt and although she was ultimately released few would say she got a fair trial or fair treatment in the Italian legal system.
We touched on this briefly before in our discussion about personal security myths but it is well worth addressing in greater detail. It is such a common and pervasive vulnerability – especially with novice travelers that it warrants closer examination.
It’s important to know about the local laws and social mores of the place where you are visiting, working or
living. This means understanding that some behavior and activities that are perfectly legal and acceptable at home may be illegal in the country where you are located. Even if you are not technically breaking a law you may be violating a social taboo or custom that can cause problems for you. Many people use language “respect for the local culture”. I don’t like this particular verbiage as it implies a level of agreement or acceptance of the particular culture. That culture may include denying women the right to an education and other basic rights, use of child soldiers, capital punishment for adultery and other things that are reprehensible. I don’t think these things need to be “respected” but we do need to be aware of their place in the local landscape and
our inability to change them.
For your own safety and self preservation though you do need to be aware of potential pitfalls. I also don’t want to overstate the problem and give the impression that foreign jails are full of innocent Americans and other westerners. Let’s be clear: a large number of the western citizens imprisoned overseas are in jail for drug offenses and the majority are guilty. They may be serving sentences or under conditions that seem harsh by our standards but most are guilty. That said there are people detained for crimes that would not be considered illegal in most western democracies.
Here are some areas that can cause you to inadvertently break local laws and run afoul of local authorities. I have intentionally omitted blatant crimes that are illegal almost everywhere like drug trafficking. Obviously there is a lot of variation from country to country:
- Involvement in local politics: Becoming involved in local politics by supporting one political party or another, advocating democracy and things of that nature are likely to draw unwanted attention from local police and security forces as well as militias and other informal groups supporting the ruling or opposition party. I recognize that some non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) have this specific type of activity as their mission. In those cases its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
- Proselytizing: Spreading religious messages, holding religious services and attempting to convert local people is considered criminal in many countries – in particular, but not exclusively in the Muslim world. Again – I recognize this is the specific mission of many faith-based groups. As with NGOs mentioned above its strongly recommended that the organization complete a risk assessment and have a security and contingency plan.
- Questionable business ventures and partners: In the discussion on dealing with local partners we covered this topic fairly well. Suffice to say getting involved with questionable business dealings and partners can create local legal troubles for you. Also unscrupulous local partners, customers or vendors can use the local legal system to their advantage to gain leverage in business disputes.
- Photographing critical infrastructure and government buildings: Behavior that could be mistaken for intelligence gathering may cause you to be arrested and charged with espionage. Taking pictures or airports, military bases, presidential residences, government buildings and the like can get you into a great deal of trouble. This is especially true in the coup-prone countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. In fairness to those governments that type of activity can be mistaken for reconnaissance. Foreigners arrested, imprisoned and horribly tortured in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 were in fact an advance team planning to overthrow the ruler of that country.
- Adoption: Adoption in some foreign countries can be a perilous process if not done correctly and in coordination with reputable organizations. Some governments have viewed adoption efforts as human trafficking. In one recent case in West Africa an American couple was detained on suspicion of human trafficking and were only released after high level diplomatic involvement.
- Public Drunkenness: In a number of countries in the Middle East — even some where alcohol is permitted public drunkenness is a serious crime.
Religious/Social Infractions: These include things such as inappropriate dress, public displays of affection, adultery, possession of literature or media deemed “pornography” by local standards. Several Gulf countries impose fines and even confinement for Ramadan offenses (even by foreigners/non-Muslims).
Its important to keep in mind that when in a foreign country you are subject to its laws and behave accordingly.