China Invokes Diplomatic Immunity in Belfast Planning Dispute

August 12, 2020 Updated: August 15, 2020

China’s consul general in Belfast cannot be held legally accountable for ignoring planning rules due to diplomatic immunity, a High Court judge has ruled.

Belfast council was denied a court injunction in June to prevent construction works at the listed building in a conservation area that houses the Chinese consulate.

The council had sought the injunction after receiving a complaint in February from local residents that a wall was being built around the building’s perimeter without planning permission.

In her recently published ruling (pdf), Justice McBride said Consul General Madame Zhang Meifang, who had ordered the construction works, was immune to prosecution because the works were not commissioned for her personally.

Construction works at Belfasts Chinese consulate
A worker working on a footpath outside the Chinese consulate in Belfast on July 24, 2020. (Courtesy of Martin McBurney)

“I consider … that the works that have been commissioned by the respondent [Zhang] are being done by her on behalf of the Chinese State,” McBride said.

“Accordingly, it is my view that immunity applies and therefore I find that the respondent enjoys immunity.”

It would be “beating the air” to issue an injunction, which would be “unenforceable,” she said.

Responsibility to Follow the Law

In her ruling, Judge McBride emphasized the responsibilities of those who enjoy immunity to respect the law.

“Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving state,” she wrote, quoting from a February email sent to Zhang’s solicitors urging the consulate to apply for planning permission.

No one could enter the Chinese consulate and arrest Zhang even if she breached a court order, McBride said, but that did not mean that Zhang had acted lawfully.

“It is important to stress that diplomatic immunity does not mean the person is not acting unlawfully. It just means that she is immune from the jurisdiction of this court,” she said.

There was “at least an arguable case” that the consulate was illegally ignoring planning regulations, she said.

Local Concerns

The Chinese consulate has come under strong criticism from people living in the conservation area.

Local resident Martin McBurney, who had asked to be added to the injunction petition, criticized the conduct of the consul general.

Clanti climb rails installed at Chinese consular In Belfast
Workers installing anti-climb railings at the Chinese Consulate in Belfast on July 28, 2020. (Courtesy of Martin McBurney)

“Regardless of the diplomatic immunity issue, the Chinese Consular Madame Zhang has shown total disrespect for their neighbors and the neighborhood that is located on a conservation area,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

“The consulate have ignored the planning laws for the conservation area and the concerns of the local residents.”

By ignoring residents, the Chinese consulate has done “huge harm to community relations,” he said.

“The behavior of the consulate is no more than just bully boy tactics.”

McBurney was not added to the injunction petition because the court ruled that the injunction itself could not be granted due to Zhang’s diplomatic immunity.

Dispute

The council had previously issued a temporary stop notice, a tree protection order, and a listed building enforcement notice to stop the building works, but all appeared to be ignored.

“There were ongoing works at the site which were in breach of planning legislation. These works attracted a significant number of complaints from local residents and elected representatives,” a Belfast City Council spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email.

“The consulate asserted diplomatic immunity in respect of the works and the council was working with the consulate to try to resolve resident’s concerns. When that was not possible, and works remained ongoing, the council had no option but to apply for an injunction in order to safeguard the protected building, trees, and conservation area.”

After talks broke down, the disputed works, which were to include an almost 10-foot-high boundary wall, widening of a vehicle entrance and the addition of a new pedestrian entrance, “anti-climb” devices, and a new security pavilion, appeared to recommence.

According to the judgment, on June 21 a new screen was erected around the consulate premises “making it difficult, if not impossible to see what works were going on at the premises.”

The consulate has throughout maintained that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of the UK courts and that it has diplomatic immunity.

The ‘Nuclear Option’

In concluding her judgment, McBride referred to the “nuclear option” mentioned by the council’s solicitor.

That option is where the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs can withdraw permission for a building to be used as consular premises.

This would be a “very serious consequence” and a reason for Zhang to re-engage in discussions with the council, McBride said.