He said each student studying abroad is expected to attend a pre-departure orientation session that covers important issues related to local laws. They also must sign a contract that acknowledges UNC-CH may be limited in its ability to help.
Victoria Wolf, a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State, said the government also operates under constraints depending on specific circumstances.
“If you’re arrested, depending on the country that you’re in, some countries may notify us that they have a U.S. citizen in custody, but often times they don’t think to do that,” she said.
Wolf said it’s important students arrested abroad let local police know they would like the U.S. embassy notified.
“We can’t get you out of jail. We are, just as you are as a traveler, working under the same laws as you are in the country,” she said.
She said embassy workers are able to provide a list of local English-speaking lawyers and monitor an arrested citizen’s trial, as well as see to a citizen’s general welfare — including contacting family and raising medical or dental issues with local authorities.
Joseph Kennedy, a professor in the UNC School of Law, said the U.S. government does not offer legal aid to American citizens arrested overseas.
“Obviously, American citizens who are detained overseas for political reasons raise different issues which American diplomats sometimes engage,” he said.
But Kennedy says it can be difficult to understand when the motivation for arrest is political.
“Countries will usually claim — even countries who are arresting people for political reasons — will claim they are arresting them for violation of their criminal law,” he said.
Research prior to traveling is key, Wolf said, because U.S. officials are limited by logistical and security issues.
“Unfortunately, the standard of justice is not universal,” Wolf said. “We would love it to be, but it’s not and the constitution does not follow you overseas.”