About the Inviolability of Premises of International Organizations in Belgium

There is still some uncertainty about the legal regime of premises of international organizations in Belgium. This is particularly true regarding bailiff notifications at the premises, due to a restrictive case-law of the Court of Cassation. It is worth recalling a few key points on this topic, while bearing in mind that the specific rules may be different from one international organization to another.

In the treaties laying down the privileges and immunities of international organizations present on Belgian territory – whether a multilateral convention between Members or a bilateral headquarters agreement with Belgium – there is traditionally a provision that recognizes the inviolability of the premises of the organization. Moreover, the “model seat agreement” used by the Belgian Interministerial Committee for Host nation Policy (“CIPS” in French), includes such a provision at Article 6.1.

As echoed in Article 6.1 of the model seat agreement, this inviolability means, first and foremost, that any agent of the host State is forbidden from entering the premises without the consent of the chief administrative officer of the organization – or, as the case may be, the director of the representative office of the organization in Belgium.

This rule applies to all organs and agents of the host State, inter alia the armed forces, the police, the customs or tax authorities, the social inspectors, etc. It is, however, still controversial whether a bailiff is allowed to notify judicial acts (e.g. a writ of summons) within the premises of the organization. The Court of Cassation (Supreme Court) held, in a judgment of 10 September 1992, that the inviolability of premises conceded to the international organization at stake did not entail that a bailiff could not validly perform official notifications within those premises – hence there was no need, according to the Court of Cassation, to notify the act through the diplomatic channel, namely via the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It should be noted, nevertheless, that this case-law of the Belgian Court of Cassation is not consistently followed by lower courts (see e.g. Brussels Court of First Instance (Judge of Seizures), 16 December 2013, No. 2013/2882/A, unpublished, in a case where the international organization – assisted by our public international law team – successfully invoked the inviolability of its premises to oppose the notification by bailiff of a writ of summons that failed to be communicated through the diplomatic channel).

Arguably, there is no apparent reason why the inviolability of premises would exclude bailiff notifications when it comes to premises of a diplomatic mission – an undisputed interpretation of the inviolability provided for in Article 22.1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations – and not when it comes to premises of an international organization. In both situations, indeed, the inviolability has the same rationale, namely safeguarding the unimpeded performance of functions; and in both situations the notification of a judicial act by a bailiff involves an interference in these functions, to the extent that it conveys an order that may be enforced by the authorities of the receiving/host State. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that, for some international organizations present in Belgium, the relevant treaty on privileges and immunities explicitly specifies that the inviolability of premises is not affected by the notification of a judicial act within the premises (see e.g. Article 2.3 of the 2008 Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the Benelux Union): from the existence of these provisions, it may be inferred that, where by contrast the relevant treaty fails to make such a specification, the inviolability should be understood as extending indeed to bailiff notifications.

Article 6.2 of the model seat agreement provides that the permission for access to the premises “shall be assumed to be given in case of emergencies requiring prompt protective action” (for example in case of fire). Once again, where the applicable treaty fails to contain this specification, the principle will remain that consent is needed even in case of emergency – which is moreover the position of Belgian authorities as far as the premises of foreign diplomatic missions are concerned.

Under Article 6.3 of the model seat agreement, “Belgium shall take all appropriate measures to prevent invasion or damage to the [international organization] premises, to prevent the peace of the [international organization] being disturbed or its dignity being diminished in any way.” This is indeed another classical corollary of the inviolability of premises (see, as to diplomatic missions, Article 22.2 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations). What happens, though, if the relevant treaty does not explicitly include such an obligation of protection on the part of the host State of an international organization? Belgian authorities seem to consider that it is still their duty to take adequate preventive measures (see section 6.1.3 of the Protocol Guide). And in practice they do take such measures whenever it is deemed appropriate, including in relation to international organizations for which the applicable treaty does not explicitly impose an obligation of protection (for instance the EU, see Article 1 of the Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the European Union).

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