The right of retention on the vehicle of a diplomat
The private vehicle of an ambassador accredited to Belgium breaks down and is handed over to a specialized firm for repair.
The firm then sends the ambassador an invoice, which is disputed.
The garage opposes the return of the vehicle as long as its invoice has not been paid.
The ambassador consults us in order to recover his car as quickly as possible without being forced to pay the entire disputed bill.
The garage owner exercises what is commonly called the right of retention, enshrined in the Belgian law of obligations, which outlines the right to retain the property that has been handed over to him by his debtor, as long as the latter has not paid the claim relating to this property.
However, under article 30 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the property of diplomats is inviolable.
Therefore, according to this provision:
“1. The private residence of the diplomatic agent enjoys the same inviolability and the same protection as the premises of the mission
2. His documents, correspondence and, subject to article 31, paragraph 3, his property shall also enjoy inviolability.”
Finally, Article 31 of the Vienna Convention provides that:
“No execution measure may be taken with regard to the diplomatic agent, except in the cases provided for in subparagraphs (a), (b) and (c) of paragraph 1, and provided that the execution can take place without the inviolability of his person or of his home.”
Subject to three exceptions, non-applicable in the case at stake, all the property of a diplomat, therefore, enjoys inviolability regardless of whether it is used for public or private purposes.
This principle of international law is legally superior to the right of retention organized by the Civil Code notwithstanding the requirement of Article 41 of the Vienna Convention which provides, of course, that “(-) all persons who benefit from these privileges and immunities have a duty to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State”, but specifies, from the outset, that such an obligation is incumbent on them “without prejudice to their privileges and immunities”.
Given the garage owner’s categorical refusal to return the vehicle, we, therefore, advise the Ambassador to summon the garage owner to the Brussels Court of First Instance in order to obtain its return, under penalty of being ordered to pay a lump sum per day of delay.
After noting that the retention measure exercised on the vehicle in the garage did not intervene in one of the three cases referred to in Article 31.3 of the Vienna Convention, the judge considered that the exercise of the right of retention by the repairer violated article 30.2 of the same Convention, which enshrined the inviolability of the property of diplomats.
The condemned repairer immediately returns the vehicle to the ambassador.
Thanks to this judgment, our client was also able to negotiate an agreement on the payment of the disputed invoice.