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INDEMNITIES, a diplomatic term for a nation's payments to compensate foreign citizens for injuries to their persons or properties. Such payments were more commonly described late in the twentieth century in terms of settlement of international claims. Indemnities differ from reparations, which have often denoted postwar nation-to-nation payments with punitive (and compensatory) functions.

Significant historical examples of indemnities paid to the United States have come in the context of damage to American merchant shipping. France paid millions of dollars in the 1830s for Napoleonic era spoliations—seizures of neutral American ships and cargos during the European wars of 1803 to 1815. British shipyards built Confederate commerce raiders during the Civil War, and Britain paid the United States more than $8 million under the 1871 Treaty of Washington for the resulting Union shipping losses. Also notable were Germany's payments after World War I for American civilians killed and ships sunk by its submarines. Expropriations have also occasioned indemnities, such as Albania's 1995 payment of $2 million for its then-communist government's seizure of American properties after World War II.

The United States has also made indemnities, sometimes for American mob violence to foreign citizens, such as the payments after three Italians were lynched in an 1891 New Orleans riot. Many twentieth-century indemnities have come after military accidents, such as a $2 million payment in 1955 for fallout poisoning on a Japanese fishing trawler after a United States hydrogen bomb test. More recently, surviving family members were paid when the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988.

Indemnities often involve competing considerations for the paying nation. Governments may be slow for legal reasons to admit fault but quick for diplomatic reasons to demonstrate concern. These tensions are frequently resolved by characterization of payments as ex gratia humanitarian gestures and not admissions of liability. So, for example, Israel made an ex gratia payment after its accidental 1967 attack on the USS Liberty. The United States' payment in the Japanese trawler incident was also ex gratia.

The injured person's nation may also face thorny political issues attendant to indemnities. Notably, the president of the United States can agree to extinguish claims when it is in the national interest. This happened in 1981, when the American embassy hostages in Iran were released only after President Jimmy Carter waived their individual claims against the Iranian government. Subsequent recompense bythe U.S. government in such cases is never certain. The Tehran embassy hostages were compensated by act of Congress in 1986. Conversely, claimants' heirs and insurers were still petitioning Congress for redress in 1915 with respect to certain spoliation claims against France that President John Adams had waived in 1800.


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. A Diplomatic History of the United States. 5th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965. Dated but comprehensive and valuable general source on indemnities through the mid-twentieth century.

Henkin, Louis. Foreign Affairs and the United States Constitution. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Useful discussion of constitutional issues involved in the historical context of the French spoliation claims settled in 1800.

Maier, Harold G. "Ex Gratia Payments and the Iranian Airline Tragedy." American Journal of International Law 83 (April 1989): 325–332. Useful legal and historical discussion of ex gratia payments.

Charles F.Bethel

See alsoAlabama Claims ; Iran Hostage Crisis .

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