Case law Developments in PIL

“Waiver of State Immunity over Central Bank Accounts! Say No More!”, French Supreme Court Rules

This post was contributed by Dr. Sally El Sawah, Avocat aux Barreaux de Paris et du Caire, Registered Foreign Lawyer (England & Wales), Co-Founder & Head of Arbitration and Litigation at JUNCTION (Paris).


In a judgment of 12 May 2021 (no. 19-13.853), the French supreme court for civil and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) ruled that central bank accounts are un-attachable assets according to Article L-153-1 of the Monetary and Financial Code (“CMF”). Therefore, any debate about the waiver by the State of its immunity from execution was irrelevant. Although the entire grounds of appeal before the Cour de cassation were based on the State immunity from execution, its scope and limits and the consequences of its waiver, the Court of cassation has decided to shift the debate to the question of un-attachability (“insaisissabililté”) of central bank accounts. Un-attachability echoes the inviolability for diplomatic property. Even though they produce similar effects, un-attachability, inviolability and immunity are three separate legal concepts such that a waiver of the latter is ineffective to the former two.

Background

It is possible today to talk about the Commisimpex saga, that would join the landmark precedents Noga, NML Capital and Yukos in the realm of State Immunity from execution.

This case is one of the many failed attempts of post-judgment measures of constraint exercised by the Congolese company Commissions Import Export SA (Commisimpex) in execution of two final and enforceable arbitral awards rendered against the Democratic Republic of Congo (“the DRC”) on December 3, 2000, and January 21, 2013. The fact that the contractual documents contained a clause providing for the waiver by the DRC of its immunity from execution was not of great assistance to Commisimpex when it tried to attach the DRC’s and/or its emanations’ assets for over a decade now. These attachments involved a pallet of assets ranging from mere shares in a société civile immobilière (non-trading real-estate company) to bank accounts of the DRC’s consular and diplomatic representations in France.

Here, they involved the Democratic Republic of Congo’s account with the Bank of Central African States (“BEAC”) held in France. This case was another opportunity for the Court of cassation to interpret (and perhaps revisit its reading of) Article L.153-1 of the Monetary and Financial Code (“Article L-153-1CMF) in light of Articles 18 and 19(a) and (b), and 21.1(c) and 21.2 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and their Property (“UNCSI”, although not yet entered into force, but from the perspective that it is a codification of customary international law), and Article 6§1 of the ECHR and Article 1 of its First Protocol.

Article L-153-1 was adopted in 2005 to limit the possibility of attachment over central bank accounts held in France on behalf of a State, regardless of the identity of the account holder. In other words, even if the account is held in the name of the central bank itself, and not that of the State, this did not constitute a reason to allow the attachments over these accounts. Any attempt to distinguish between the accounts held on behalf of the State based on the purpose for which they were used was also doomed to fail. Whether or not the accounts held on behalf of the State were in use or destined to be used for a commercial purpose was irrelevant. In any event, it was de facto impossible to prove such use for many reasons, amongst which was the principle of banking secrecy. In addition to these restrictions, another one was added by this article; it required the creditor holding a final enforceable title to obtain leave from the execution judge prior to making the attachment (although such requirement does not exist for the other creditors who hold a final and enforceable title against non-sovereigns). In practice, it has become impossible to seize central bank accounts in France, regardless of their holder or the purpose of their use.

Analysis

As expressly mentioned in the travaux préparatoires, the purpose behind Article L153-1 was to increase the competitiveness of Paris as an attractive financial hub of foreign central bank reserves. Such purpose was sufficient for the Court of cassation to declare the conformity of Article L153-1 with the French Constitution (Cass. civ. 2, July 11, 2013, no. 1340.036). The conformity of this article with the ECHR was also confirmed by the French Court of cassation (Cass. civ. 2, January 11, 2018, no. 16-10.661). In that decision, the Court of cassation affirmed that the restriction to article 6§1 was reasonable and proportionate insofar as it pursued the legitimate purpose of complying with customary international law rules. It was proportionate since even though the burden of proof that the accounts held by the Central Bank for its own account was used for other than governmental non-commercial purposes difficult, it was not impossible.

In the judgment commented here, the appellant raised similar arguments. On the one hand, Commisimpex tried to convince the Court of cassation that there was waiver of state immunity from execution. On the other hand, the alternative measures of recourse providing for a possible recourse by the Creditor before administrative courts to engage the responsibility of the French State for violation of the principle of equality before public charges when it granted immunity from execution to the foreign State were not applicable in the case at hand. Indeed, Commisimpex was not a taxpayer in France, and thus could not avail itself of the possibility of recourse before French administrative courts (definitely, the appellant was alluding to the Court of cassation’s decision of May 25, 2016, no. 15-18.646).

Following its traditional stern and concise way of making solemn declarations of principle, the Court of cassation stated that the purpose behind Article L.153-1 was to protect the functioning of institutions which contribute to the definition and implementation of the State monetary policy and to prevent the blockade of foreign exchange reserves deposited in France. This purpose was legitimate. Accordingly, the subsequent restriction to the right of property and the right of access to court and to an effective execution of final judicial decisions which resulted from the un-attachability of these accounts was legitimate. It was also proportionate insofar as it was limited to the central bank assets deposited in France and did not encompass all the other property of the State. Therefore, there was no violation of Article 6§1 of the ECHR, nor of the right to property under Article 1§1 of the Additional Protocol to the ECHR.

However, the Court of cassation’s declaration that the proportionality test was met since State assets other than central bank accounts could be seized is strikingly theoretical. Indeed, the Loi Sapin II, adopted in 2016, has embraced the same approach as in L-153-1 CMF with a requirement of prior leave and a presumption of the governmental non-commercial nature of State assets listed in that law, which rendered any possible enforcement over State assets illusionary.

It is noteworthy that in this decision, the attachment pursued the Democratic Republic of Congo’s account with the Bank of Central African States, and not those of the Central Bank of Congo (“CBC”). The BEAC operates as the central bank of six African States including the Democratic Republic of Congo and coexists in parallel with the CBC. The broad wording of Article L.153-1 which uses the terms “central bank” and “monetary authority” allows the protection of not only the CBC, but also any other entity which performs central bank functions and acts as a State’s monetary authority, such as the BEAC according to its Charter (Article 1). However, the main difference between these two central banks is that the BEAC in fact enjoys the privileges and immunities of international organisations (Article 6.1 of its Charter). One may wonder in such case whether Article L-153-1 CMF was the right provision to apply, and thus, whether there was room for the application of the so-called “un-attachability”. Indeed, Article 6.6 of the BEAC’s Charter provides that “only the net credit balances of accounts opened in the books of the Central Bank may be subject to seizure, in execution of a final judicial decision”. It is striking that this issue was not addressed by the Court of cassation (perhaps it has not been raised by the appellants before the Court of Appeal in the first place).

Regardless of the particularity of the BEAC and its Charter, what seems more striking though, is the absence of any reference whatsoever to Article 21.2 UNCSI, which provides for a possible attachment of central banks accounts in case of express waiver according to Articles 18.a and 19.a of the UNCSI.  Placing the debate on the ground of un-attachability allowed the Court of cassation to mute any possible argument based on such waiver. Immunity and un-attachability are two different concepts. The waiver by the DRC of its immunity from execution was thus inoperative and could not encompass un-attachable assets. Hence, the Court of cassation did not have to conciliate the un-attachability of Article L.153-1 CMF with the regime of central bank accounts under UNCSI.

Most likely, the real reason behind the Court of cassation’s new approach lies in the bad experience it has encountered when it has tried to be bold back in 2015 in the same Commisimpex Saga (Cass. Civ. 1e, May 13, 2015, no. 13-17.751). One may recall that, back then, the bold yet accurate interpretation adopted by the Court of cassation of Article 21 UNCSI to tackle the issue of waiver of State immunity from execution over diplomatic bank accounts has cost it the “legislative censure” by the Sapin II Act. This legislative reform has de facto rendered any possible execution over foreign States’ assets practically impossible. It is permissible in these circumstances to say that State immunity from execution in France has in fact become (quasi) absolute. Any kind of State property which is not evidently and ostensibly commercial, will be protected by State immunity from execution, and when the conditions for an exception thereto can be met, French courts could avoid the discussion by inventing a new layer of protection that it may call un-attachability …

Of course, it is important to attract foreign exchange reserves to the deposit of the Banque de France, yet, not at the high price of the Rule of law.

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