Mathilde Codazzi, who is a master student at the university Paris II Panthéon-Assas, contributed to this post.
In a judgment of 3 November 2021, the French Supreme Court for private and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) confirmed the evolution of the French law of Sovereign Immunities after a statutory intervention in 2016 and its alignment on the 2004 UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities.
A Dutch judgment from 27 September 2000 ordered a public Iraqi company, Rasheed Bank, to pay various amounts to Citibank, an American company. On this ground, Citibank carried out a protective measure on Rasheed Bank’s accounts in France, which was later converted into an attachment procedure after the Dutch judgment was declared enforceable by French courts. The Iraqi company seized French courts to challenge the conversion.
There were two main issues arising in this case:
- Whether Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities required a connection between the assets attached and the claim, in addition to a connection between the goods and the entity against which the claim was brought, and
- Whether the creditor had to prove that the State voluntarily intended to allocate its property to a government non-commercial purpose,
Article 19(c) of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and their Property (2004) provides that post-judgment measures of constraint may only be taken if and to the extent that (…) “it has been established that the property is specifically in use or intended for use by the State for other than government non-commercial purposes and is in the territory of the State of the forum, provided that post-judgment measures of constraint may only be taken against property that has a connection with the entity against which the proceeding was directed”.
Court of Appeal
In a judgment of 17 October 2019, the Paris Court of Appeal upheld the conversion of the protective measure into an attachment procedure. After recalling the content of Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities, the Court of Appeal ruled that there must be a connection between the assets attached, which must be linked to a private law transaction, and the entity against which the claim was brought. It then ruled that requiring a connection between the assets attached and the claim would be contrary to Article 6(1) of the ECHR and the right of access to justice, as it would disproportionately infringe the creditor’s right to enforce judgments, without pursuing a legitimate purpose.
The Court of Appeal also held that Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities does not require the creditor to demonstrate the State’s will to allocate the attached assets to a commercial purpose. It recalled the principle of unattacheability of State assets and that the burden of proof lies on the creditor, before finding that in light of the circumstances, the assets deposited on the accounts were to be allocated to ends other than government non-commercial purposes: the cash-deposit account was opened at a time where Rasheed Bank presented itself as independent from the Iraqi State and frequently performed commercial transactions, a use that cannot have changed since due to the freezing of Iraqi assets in 1990.
Rasheed Bank challenged this judgment on several grounds.
First, it argued that although Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities does not require a connection between the attached assets and the creditor’s claim to allow the seizure, it does not prohibit it either. According to the Iraqi public company, the Court of Appeal failed to give adequate reasons by ruling that requiring a link between the attached assets and the claim was contrary to Article 6(1) of the ECHR. Rasheed Bank claimed that since the UN Convention of Jurisdictional Immunities reflects customary international law, the Court of Appeal could not rule the requirement of a connection between the attached assets and the claim contrary to Article 6(1) of the ECHR without first verifying whether requiring this connection would be contrary to customary international law. It also sustained that the right to have access to justice of Article 6(1) ECHR may be restricted by a limitation whose purpose is legitimate and which is proportionate to this purpose; according to Rasheed Bank, the Court of Appeal’s reasoning lacks a legal basis as it failed to indicate how requiring a connection between the attached assets and the claim would infringe the creditor’s right to enforce judgments without pursuing a legitimate purpose.
Second, Rasheed Bank argued that by virtue of customary international law, in order to attach specifically used assets or assets used for other than government non-commercial purposes, the creditor must demonstrate the will of the State or of its emanation to allocate the attached assets to a commercial purpose.
The Supreme Court upheld entirely the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
It ruled that customary international law, as codified by Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities, provides that apart from the situations where the State has expressly consented to post-judgment measures of constraint or allocated or earmarked property for the satisfaction of the claim, his property or that of its emanations located on the territory of the forum may only be seized, pursuant to a judgment or an arbitral award, if it is “specifically in use or intended for use by the State for other than government non-commercial purposes” and have “a connection with the entity against which the proceeding was directed”. Hence the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeal had rightly ruled that the taking of post-judgment enforcement measures does not require a connection between the attached assets and the claim: they must only be connected to the entity against which the measures are carried out.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the Court of Appeal rightly inferred from the circumstances that the assets were not destined to a government non-commercial use, without shifting the burden of proof. It held that the account seized, because it was opened in the course of commercial transactions, was by nature intended to serve ends other than non-commercial purposes.
The judgment must be viewed in the light of the recent reform of the French law of sovereign immunities.
Until 2016, the French law of immunities was entirely judge made. The leading case was Eurodif, where the Cour de cassation had ruled in 1984 that the scope of the immunity of enforcement of foreign states extended to all assets which did not have a connection with the commercial activity which gave rise to the claim. In other words, a claim arising from the trade of grain by a state could not be satisfied on assets affected to the oil activities of a state.
In 2016, the French Parliament adopted statutory provisions replicating Article 19 of the UN Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities. These provisions are found in the French Code of civil enforcement proceedings (Code des procédures civiles d’exécution), in particular in Art. L. 111-1-2.
This case, however, did not fall within the temporal scope of these statutory provisions. This likely explains why the Court did not simply refer to them (as the Court of Appeal had), but rather applied directly Article 19 as customary international law. While many provisions of the Convention certainly reflect customary international law, whether Article 19 actually does is unclear, but the Cour de cassation has long shown that it has no intention of embarking into any nuanced analysis in this respect.
They key question arising in this case was whether Article 19 necessarily excludes the rule in Eurodif. The argument of the appeal was that Article 19 was silent, and thus neutral in this respect, and that the Court could have kept this long standing requirement. The argument is rejected, and the court rules that the old requirement of a connection between the attached assets and the claim is obsolete.