In a decision of November 2022, the Swedish Labour Court held that Qatar had, at least in part, the right to invoke state immunity from jurisdiction in connection with proceedings relating to an employment matter.
An employee at the Qatari embassy in Stockholm was summarily dismissed in September 2021. He filed a lawsuit against the State of Qatar in the Stockholm District Court requesting invalidation of, and compensation for, unfair dismissal. Qatar objected to Swedish jurisdiction by invoking State immunity under international law.
In a preliminary decision, the Stockholm District Court granted Qatar State immunity regarding the invalidation claim, but denied it with respect to the claim for compensation. The Labour Court, which was the court of appeal and last instance in the matter, agreed with the District Court’s conclusion.
In its decision, the Labour Court held that the dispute had such a “close connection” to Sweden that Swedish courts should be able to assert jurisdiction, unless Qatar had the right to invoke state immunity. The court continued by stating that whether or not state immunity from jurisdiction should be respected is dependent on customary international law. In this regard, the court held that the 2004 United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property is representative of customary international law.
Article 11 of the 2004 UN Convention deals with employment law matters. The provision contemplates several exceptions to State immunity in this field, i.e., situations where a State, as a defendant before the courts of another State, are not entitled to immunity.
Article 11(2)(c) sets out that States are immune from jurisdiction whenever “the subject-matter of the proceeding is the recruitment, renewal of employment or reinstatement of an individual”. Although this provision does not explicitly deal with the invalidation of a dismissal, the Swedish Labour Court concluded that such invalidation is equivalent to reinstatement. With references to the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR’s) judgments Naku v. Lithuania and Sweden and Cudak v. Lithuania, the Labour Court found that granting State immunity does not amount to a violation of the employee’s right to a fair trial under Article 6 in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
In its examination of the ECtHR’s judgments, the Labour Court noted that Naku had requested both reinstatement and damages and that the ECtHR had found that it was wrong to grant State immunity in that case. The Labour Court noted that the ECtHR made a point that an employee under Lithuanian law could be given severance pay instead of reinstatement. There is no possibility for a court to do so under Swedish law when a former employee has pleaded invalidation of an employer’s dismissal. Therefore, the Labour Court concluded that granting State immunity for Qatar was not a violation of Article 6 in the ECHR.
The Swedish Labour Court’s decision is, in my opinion, problematic and can be criticized for at least three reasons. First, the Labour Court makes no references to EU private international law. Second, the Labour Court’s formalistic approach to public international customary law is erroneous. Third, the Labour Court only – selectively – referred to ECtHR case law on the balance of state immunity and the right to a fair trial. In the following, I will develop those three points of critique.
EU Private International Law Determines Jurisdiction
Whether or not a Swedish court has jurisdiction in an international employment law matter follows from the Brussels I bis Regulation.
Under Article 1, the Regulation shall apply in “civil and commercial matters.” This concept has, on several occasions, been interpreted by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) as including actions by public authorities, as long as they do not exercise public powers. Further, it is clear that this also extends to embassy employment cases (see, e.g., ZN, C-280/20, paras 26–28, and Mahamdia, C-154/11, para 56). Even under the old Brussels I Regulation, it was clear that the regulation was applicable to third countries’ embassies, as they are to be considered “establishments” (Mahamdia, p. 41). Under the Brussels I bis Regulation, Article 6 has been extended to apply to all matters in which an employee habitually carries out his or her work in the EU, regardless of where the employer is domiciled. In such cases, the Regulation must be applied in the EU Member States (Roi Land Investments, C-604/20 para 48).
With this in mind, it is misleading that the Swedish Labour Court seemingly applies the jurisdictional standard of “Swedish interest of adjudication” that is used against defendants domiciled in third countries, without mentioning the Brussels I bis Regulation.
The 2004 UN Convention Does Not Reflect International Customary Law
The Labour Court oversimplifies customary international law by referring mechanically to the 2004 UN Convention.
Customary international law is defined by its constantly evolving nature and the fact that it must be derived from state practice. Therefore, international customary law cannot ever really be codified. The convention may serve as one of many pieces of public international customary law, but cannot be applied mechanically.
When using the 2004 convention, one shall bear in mind that there were some controversies about the content of the convention when it was adopted and that it still has not gathered enough support to enter into force. Further, since the convention was drafted nearly 20 years ago, important case law development has been made by i.a. both the CJEU and the ECtHR regarding State immunity in embassy employment disputes. As case law from these courts is to be applied by Swedish courts, irrespective of customary international law, it is questionable that this case law was not taken into consideration. This leads me to my third point of critique: that the Labour Court did not correctly refer to relevant EU and ECtHR case law.
The Labour Court Did Not Correctly Refer to Relevant ECtHR and CJEU Case law
Over the last 15 years, the ECtHR has developed a unanimous approach to State immunity in embassy employment law cases. This approach is made clear in the 2019 judgment Ndayegamiye-Mporamazina v. Switzerland. In this judgment, the ECtHR makes clear that an important feature for granting state immunity from jurisdiction is that the employee can access courts elsewhere. In Ndayegamiye-Mporamazina v. Switzerland, the employee could initiate proceedings in the embassy state of Burundi. Access to courts elsewhere in the world has long been a cornerstone in the evaluation of upholding state immunity (see Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein v. Germany). In the Swedish Labour Court’s decision, the access to courts in Qatar was not assessed at all.
In my opinion, it is a pity that the Labour Court did not pay attention to neither the EU private international law aspect nor the relevant case law developments from the ECtHR. For the development of customary international law regarding state immunity in embassy employment matters, well-motivated case law is needed. Due to the flaws described above, the Swedish Labour Court’s decision can hardly be seen as a contribution to the development of customary international law.