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Why Arbitrate Business and Human Rights Disputes? Public Consultation Period Open for the Draft Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration

Published on July 12, 2019        Author: 

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In June 2019, the Draft Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration (hereafter, “Draft BHR Arbitration Rules”) was released for global online public consultation, with the consultation period set to end by 25 August 2019.  Judge Bruno Simma chairs the global Drafting Team that has collaborated in developing the draft rules, since the Drafting Team started its work in January 2018 with the support of the City of the Hague.  (Drafting Team Members and Working Group Members all listed here.) The final version of the Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration will be published on 10 December 2019.  Before the release of the Draft BHR Arbitration Rules, the Working Group had produced a 2017 concept paper on business and human rights arbitration.  This was followed by the creation and first meetings of the Drafting Team in January 2018; the Drafting Team’s production of its Elements for Consideration in Draft Rules, Model Clauses, and Other Aspects of the Arbitral Process in time for the November 2018 Online Consultation Procedure; the April 2019 meetings of the Drafting Team and the June 2019 publication of the Summary of the Sounding Board Consultationsup to the June 2019 release of the Draft BHR Arbitration Rules.  

As described in the Draft BHR Arbitration Rules:

“The Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration provide a set of procedures for the arbitration of disputes related to the impact of business activities on human rights.  The Hague Rules are based on the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, with modifications needed to address certain issues likely to arise in business and human rights disputes.  As with the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, the scope of the Hague Rules is not limited by the type of claimant(s) or respondent(s) or the type of subject-matter of the dispute and extends to any disputes that the parties to an arbitration agreement have agreed to resolve by arbitration under the Hague Rules.  Parties could thus include business entities, individuals, labor unions and organizations, States and State entities and civil society organizations. Equally, the Hague Rules purposefully do not define the terms “business”, “human rights”, or “business and human rights.” For the purposes of the Hague Rules, such terms should be thus understood at least as broadly as the meaning such terms have under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, in the vast majority of cases, no definition of these terms should be necessary at all.

Like the UNCITRAL Rules, the Hague Rules do not address the modalities by which the parties to the arbitration may consent to it nor the content of that consent, which are matters for the parties. Consent remains the cornerstone of business and human rights arbitration, as with all arbitration, and it can be established before a dispute arises, e.g. in contractual clauses, or after a dispute arises, e.g. in a submission agreement (compromis). Model Clauses may provide potential parties with options for expressing their consent to arbitration. In addition, like the UNCITRAL Rules, the Hague Rules do not address enforcement of arbitral awards made under these Rules, which are governed by national law and various treaty obligations, including in most cases the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. While these Rules have been conceived as a uniform set of rules, we acknowledge that the parties remain entitled to exercise their discretion in opting out of certain provisions that do not respond to their specific needs as arising out the dispute at issue. Certain other Model Clauses are being developed in this respect.” (Emphasis added.)

I have served in the Drafting Team under Judge Simma’s leadership since January 2018. My colleagues Martin Doe, Steve Ratner, and Katerina Yiannibas have helpfully crystallized elsewhere several of the main points of innovation contained in the Draft Rules, such as:

“1. provisions on facilitating settlement and mediation, and emphasizing the complementarity of arbitration to such procedures as the OECD National Contact Points system (Articles 1(6), 17(3), 42, and 51)

2. provisions to address the inequality of arms which may arise in such disputes (inter alia, Articles 5(2), 20(4), 24, 27(2), and 27(4));

3. the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration as the default appointing authority, given its intergovernmental nature and experience in business and human rights disputes (Article 6);

4. procedures for multiparty claims and joinder by third parties (Article 17-bis);

5. a procedure for the early dismissal of claims manifestly without merit, developed on the basis of similar procedures in the ICSID, SIAC, SCC, and HKIAC Rules (as well as the proposed new ICSID Rules) (Article 23-bis);

6. provisions making the arbitral tribunal’s power over interim measures more robust, and at the same time more flexible (Article 26);

7. an emergency arbitrator mechanism elaborated on the basis of the ICC and SCC Rules (Article 26-bis);

8. specialized evidentiary procedures drawn up on the basis, inter alia, of the IBA Rules and Rules of the International Criminal Court, among others (Articles 27, 28, and 30(3));

9. measures to protect the identity of parties, counsel, and witnesses where such protections are warranted by the circumstances of the case, while ensuring due process is maintained for all parties (Articles 17(5), 28(3), and 37(5));

10. provisions on transparency and third-party participation (Articles 24-bis and 33-38);

11. tailored provisions on remedies in the business and human rights context (Article 40);

12. rules on applicable law that enhance flexibility and party autonomy (Article 41);

13. rules to protect the public interest in the case of confidential settlements (Article 42(1));

14. nuanced rules in respect of costs and deposits that encourage the tribunal to sensitive to the interests of access to justice (Articles 46-49);

15. an expedited arbitration procedure for small claims (Article 52); and

16. a Code of Conduct that reflects the highest standards for independence and impartiality in international dispute resolution (Annex).”

In this post, I do not aim to provide an authoritative commentary on the Draft Rules (which is exactly what our global online consultation procedure is for).  Rather, and notwithstanding the explicit caveat drawn by the Drafting Team above on leaving the modalities and content of consent to arbitration to the parties, I instead offer my personal observations to examine the essence of main criticisms (see public comments of the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment here as well as a few questions and comments I received at Harvard Law School in April 2019), directed against having the BHR Arbitration Rules in the first place: 1) whether companies and human rights victims would even consent to arbitration; and 2) if they do consent, whether one should view that consent with skepticism as to the authenticity of arbitration as a mode of access to justice for human rights victims.  The gist of my argument is this: while the BHR Arbitration Rules will never purport to be the exclusively prescribed mechanism for human rights victims of transnational business conduct and neither does it presume to displace State-based judicial or non-judicial remedies, against the realities of a continuing limited universe of legally binding human rights recourse against the impacts of private transnational activities, we cannot afford to close off the arbitral option either. As human rights practitioners well know, no single dispute resolution mechanism for human rights disputes against transnational business is perfect, and even recent national court victories in Lungowe v. Vedanta (as spearheaded by my BHR Drafting Team colleague Richard Meeran of Leigh Day) depend on the jurisdictional openness of a State’s judicial system to transnational tort claims.  The question, in my view, thus has to be reframed away from “why international arbitration?“, to “why not also international arbitration?“.

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The ESCR Revolution Continues: ILO Convention No. 190 on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

Published on June 28, 2019        Author: 

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On 21 June 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the landmark ILO Convention No. 190 (Convention concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work).  The labour standards set in this Convention were negotiated over a two year period by ILO member governments, workers’ representatives, and employers’ organizations. The adoption of Convention No. 190 is itself revolutionary, considering that an estimated around 500 million working-age women  live in countries are reported not to have any legal protections against harassment at work. The World Bank reported in 2018 that “in 59 countries, women are not legally protected from workplace sexual harassment.  The lack of legal protection is observed in 70% of the economies in the Middle East and North Africa, half (50%) in East Asia and the Pacific, and one-third (33.3%) in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

In this post, I examine the key landmark detailed provisions of ILO Convention No. 190, and why they present significantly higher protections than the more rudimentary and general provisions in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the protections against sexual harassment indicated in the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  In my view, ILO Convention No. 190 largely closes the global regulatory gap on workplace sexual harassment, not just by repeating ICESCR and CEDAW protections, but by adopting the most sweeping application of these protections (and even more substantive protections) to all the foreseeable permutations and changing employment arrangements today in the world of work.  Institutionally, the adoption of ILO Convention No. 190 also formally opens the door for ILO’s regular supervisory system to ensure this treaty’s implementation by States ratifying ILO Convention No. 190, including special procedures under the ILO Constitution, such as the complaints procedure (Articles 26 to 34 of the ILO Constitution) enabling any ILO Member State to file a complaint with the ILO if it finds that any other ILO Member State is not “securing effective observance of any Convention which both have ratified”.  The ILO Governing Body can refer the complaint to a Commission of Inquiry for investigation.  If the respondent ILO Member State does not accept the recommendations of the Commission on Inquiry, the ILO can propose to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice.  The expansive protections against workplace sexual harassment afforded in ILO Convention No. 190 to all persons (including women) could thus also be more strongly protected in the international legal system as well as in domestic legal systems.  

In the age of MeToo and the increasing global awareness that vulnerabilities to workplace sexual harassment are highest in non-traditional work settings and arrangements where power imbalances are sharpest, ILO Convention No. 190 places human dignity at the center of the global regulatory paradigm.  It will be much harder for workplace sexual harassers and those who commit violence at the workplace to escape and avoid legal responsibility anywhere in the world.

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The Right to Development and Archaic Dichotomies in UNCITRAL ISDS Reforms

Published on May 2, 2019        Author: 

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Editor’s Note:  This is the concluding post in this week’s series of several posts critically examining the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process, which held its latest Working Group III meetings in New York on April 2019.  On Monday we featured the introduction from UNCITRAL Academic Forum Chair Malcolm Langford and our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts, who summarized key points of contention raised by States as to the narrower procedural reforms to ISDS as the mandate of UNCITRAL Working Group III.  Posts on Tuesday (see here and here) from our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and her co-author Taylor St. John addressed geopolitical and ideological issues that affect ISDS reforms. On Wednesday, we featured a response post on Costs, from Susan Franck, Academic Forum Member and author of the new 2019 book, Arbitration Costs: Myths and Realities in Investment Treaty Arbitration (OUP, 2019).  EJIL:Talk! Editor Diane Desierto concludes this series, with observations drawn from her own public work today in Geneva, where she is serving as Resource Expert on Institutional Compliance with the Right to Development at the 20th Intergovernmental Working Group Session on the Right to Development, organized by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It would not have escaped our scrutiny from this week’s excellent posts by Malcolm Langford, Anthea Roberts, Taylor St. John, and Susan Franck that the UNCITRAL ISDS Reform debates of States are taking place with an occluded (if not opaque) understanding of the supposed position(s) of “developing countries”, or indeed, what their respective needs for reform and flexibility in UNCITRAL ISDS reforms are, as each developing country undertakes its desired reform path.  As my colleagues rightly pointed out this week, one cannot approach “developing countries” with a monolithic understanding (or perceived understanding) of a regional, categorical, or group approach. The World Bank dropped the classification of “developing countries” in 2016, given the lack of agreement over the definition of this classification and the deep geographic, topographic, economic, and political diversity even within ‘developing country’ groupings themselves. It is thus entirely obsolete, in today’s international economic system, to even keep assuming that the G77 Non-Aligned Movement of the 1970s would have any degree of settled unanimity today among them as to their respective foreign investment interests, all the more so since there are more capital-exporting States within the “Global South” that are themselves heavily investing across and within the “Global South”.

On the one hand, some “developing countries” have a disproportionately outsized titanic impact on global investment, especially China, which now singularly dominates the writing of the future of the terms of global infrastructure investment through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s leading role in global infrastructure investment was on full display at the 2nd Belt and Road Initiative International Forum in Beijing last week, attended by most world leaders, notwithstanding concerns about the new “colonization” seemingly emerging from BRI projects whose terms, as described recently in The Financial Times, are often bilaterally negotiated within an opaque “mish-mash” of   debt-based infrastructure projects affecting about 62% of the world’s population but which still remain non-transparent to all investment affected stakeholders. On the other hand, some ‘developing countries’, such as low-lying island States comprising around 37 States and around 50 million people, face raging existential issues from the climate change onslaught, and continue to face investment treaty claims as respondent host States (e.g. Mauritius has 3 pending, Cabo Verde has 1 pending, Dominican Republic has 6, Barbados has 1, Guyana has 1, Trinidad and Tobago among many others in this UNCTAD list), while the low-lying island States remain just as beholden to take an ISDS system still largely being written by other States contributing to the very phenomenon causing their impending extinction.  

We do not hear much about the economic, political, structural, resource, fiscal, and negotiating power inequalities and asymmetries between and among the “Global South” of “developing countries” in the UNCITRAL ISDS reform debates.  The focus has been on identifying what “developing countries” supposedly think or prefer, rather than taking each State – at whatever stage of development – as they are in evaluating the impacts of the actual distributional decisions they are making today in the ISDS reform process, and particularly whether these decisions are consistent with their commitments to the right to development (and the full range of human rights capabilities encompassed by this right).  Leaving it to States to do this kind of analysis through their respective investment treaty programs, in my view, does not solve any collective action problems arising from the globalization of our ISDS system. Neither does it significantly advance peoples’ right to development when we allocate ISDS reform into ‘procedural’ (for UNCITRAL) and ‘substantive’ (for States in their respective individual investment treaty programs), or characterize individualized State preferences for investment dispute decision-making in shorthand as ‘the West and the Rest’.  The rigor demanded of us in our responsibility to realize the right to development should be an occasion for pause in our use of, and reliance on, all these constructs and dichotomies.

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The Reviewability of the Security Exception in GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit: Implications for South China Sea Investment Disputes in GATT Article XXI-type Clauses in ASEAN Regional Investment Treaties

Published on April 9, 2019        Author: 

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The landmark WTO Panel Report on security exceptions in GATT Article XXI came out Friday last week in Russia – Traffic in Transit.  I have written extensively about necessity and national emergency clauses in the past – particularly to reject the position of the supposed wholesale unreviewability of these clauses in the Schmittian sense (on GATT Article XXI exceptions here and here, and on GATT Article XX exceptions, here and here).  The significant valence to this decision, in my view, does not just lie with the Panel’s reasoning (especially as to what they considered to be “objectively” determinable) and its broader implications for the current configuration of the world trading system in this era of increased Trump-driven trade wars.  The greater impact of this decision’s rejection of unreviewability, I submit, will be to enable arbitral tribunals to review security defenses of States anchored on international investment treaties that have purposely grafted GATT Article XXI language.

This phenomenon may be particularly acute for the regional investment treaties of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (For the detailed analysis of these clauses, see my previous published work here.)  Attempts by any ASEAN nations (such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Viet Nam, in particular) to impose, in the present or in the future, certain regulatory measures against China-funded development projects or activities of Chinese firms who are increasingly expanding their footprint (from either dredging activities and the creation of artificial islands from dredged and pulverized coral reefs; to tourism; logistics, construction, as well as energy operations in the South China Sea) could, ordinarily, be justified under the GATT Article XXI-type clause of Article 17 (Security Exceptions) in the 2010 ASEAN-China Investment Agreement.  With the declared reviewability of GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit, however, ASEAN Member States should expect that these measures could be challenged (and likely reviewed by arbitral tribunals) in investor-State dispute settlement proceedings permitted under Article 14 of the same 2010 ASEAN-China Investment Agreement.  This is just one illustration of the kind of deep ripple effects that the reviewability of GATT Article XXI-type security exceptions could have across many investment treaties that have kept replicating this clause (and particularly why I have generally, in my own expert work for ASEAN, cautioned against wholesale grafting of trade norms into the regional investment treaties, without setting an explicit treaty provision either rejecting or permitting the justiciability or reviewability of these provisions).  Transposing trade law so unstintingly into investment law creates its own set of unexpected consequences.  Notwithstanding regime differences with world trade law, investor-State arbitral tribunals may find it hard to ignore the authoritativeness of the Russia – Traffic in Transit Panel Report’s finding of reviewability of GATT Article XXI security exceptions.

This post will first give a brief summary of the Panel’s reasoning on reviewability of GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit, anticipating some of the consequences for ongoing trade wars of the United States, the EU, and Russia that depend on the unreviewability of the security exceptions clause in GATT Article XXI. (We expect extensive commentary on this landmark decision from several quarters, and this post certainly does not intend to be the last word on the full elaboration of reasons on all issues in this case.) The remaining part of this post focuses on GATT Article XXI-type security exceptions clauses in the ASEAN regional investment treaties, and how the reviewability of these clauses could potentially impact the investment and development dimension in the South China Sea disputes.

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SCOTUS Decision in Jam et al v. International Finance Corporation (IFC) Denies Absolute Immunity to IFC…With Caveats

Published on February 28, 2019        Author: 

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Editor’s Note: In view of this landmark SCOTUS decision yesterday, this post is a brief deviation from our ongoing Symposium for the ESIL Interest Group on Migration and Refugee Law on the UN Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees: The Twin Peaks?.  We immediately continue with the Symposium after this post.

When it rains, it somehow pours. February 2019 ended up being such a landmark month for international law adjudication.  A day after the International Court of Justice released its landmark Chagos Advisory Opinion (finely discussed by Marko Milanovic here), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued its 27 February 2019 decision in Jam et al. v. International Finance Corporation, (586 U.S. ___ 2019).  The decision squarely rejects the defense of absolute immunity invoked by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) through the United States’ International Organizations Immunities Act (IOIA) of 1945, with respect to a damages suit for negligence, nuisance, trespass, and breach of contract filed in 2015 before the US District Court for the District of Columbia, by a group of farmers and fishermen in India (with assistance from the NGO EarthRights), concerning the IFC’s inadequate supervision of the environmental and social action plan over its US$450 million loan to construct a coal-fired power plant in the state of Gujarat.  The damages suit invokes the IFC’s own internal audit through the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), admitting that the IFC did not adequately supervise the environmental and social action plan for the project.  

Last week, I wrote about the evidence from Inspection Panel’s body of investigation reports in about 131 cases thus far, showing ongoing gaps between the World Bank’s articulated commitments to Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement, with its actual operational practices in environmental and social action compliance methods that deliberately refuse to internalize the actual international human rights, environmental, climate change, and labor obligations of States in the Bank’s lending operations for development projects. In this respect, the SCOTUS decision is of landmark impact, because it opens the door for US courts to potentially determine the nature of the IFC’s legal responsibilities beyond the lines of accountability internally designed at the World Bank through the independent Inspection Panel or the compliance auditing process at the CAO.  Whether or not the suits will prosper on the merits, of course, is another matter altogether, noting how business and human rights litigation strategies have evolved in the United States after SCOTUS decisions in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum and Jesner v. Arab Bank PLC.  

There are also caveats to the decision itself, as carefully penned by SCOTUS Chief Justice Roberts.  When one goes through the Court’s reasoning, the Court also signaled that “restrictive immunity hardly means unlimited exposure to suit for international organizations.” 

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Lingering Asymmetries in SDGs and Human Rights: How Accountable are International Financial Institutions in the International Accountability Network?

Published on February 22, 2019        Author: 

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The recent US nomination (and thus de facto appointment) of well-known World Bank critic and US Treasury official, John Malpass, as the new World Bank President following the abrupt resignation of Jim Yong Kim (former Dartmouth College president who announced he was leaving the World Bank for opportunities in the private sector) brought a slew of criticisms (see here, here, and here) against the United States’ traditional prerogatives of appointing the World Bank President, in tandem with the European Union’s counterpart prerogatives in appointing the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The tradition arises from a “gentlemen’s agreement” struck at Bretton Woods at the inception of the World Bank and IMF.  Neither the IMF Articles of Agreement or the World Bank Group’s Articles of Agreement contain any whiff of this gentlemen’s agreement – but they are effectively carried out because of the United States’ overwhelming voting power at the World Bank and the European Union’s counterpart voting power at the IMF.  In any event, contestations over power and leadership of the Bretton Woods institutions are not exactly new – they are precisely the same matters that have impelled rival geopolitical powers such as China and Russia to set up new international financial institutions (IFIs) where their influence and leadership can be more palpable, as seen from the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Leadership contests at the IFIs – often between one hegemon and other fellow hegemons in the international system – do not, however, scrutinize the real nature of accountability of IFIs under their development mandates, as to the populations for whom such mandates were created to begin with.  During his presidency at the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim was heavily criticized for soliciting private funders in Wall Street to finance the Bank, sourcing capital infusions beyond the traditional donations of governments.  World Bank staff challenged him for his managerial style and the lack of strategic direction, that was alleged to be inconsistent with the Bank’s actual development mandate.  

Even as the IFIs continued to tout “inclusive growth” at the November 2018 G20 meetings – a goal which the World Bank defines as “growth that allows people to contribute to and benefit from economic growth” – it is quite remarkable to this day that IFIs shirk from openly embracing their own member States’ human rights treaty obligations as the normative template for their development mandates, preferring to refer strictly to their internal mandates under their respective Articles of Agreement.  (On this point, see the interesting 2017 article by Thomas Stubbs and Alexander Kentikelenis).  It may be recalled that the UN Independent Expert for a Democratic and Equitable International Order, Mr. Alfred de Zayas, formally called on the World Bank in September 2017 to align their articles of agreement with human rights, and to ensure that development projects with Members’ own international human rights commitments, all the more so because the World Bank could not afford to be a “human rights-free zone”.  

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2018 Favourite Readings: Values, Identity, and Growth in the Global Economy

Published on December 26, 2018        Author: 

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Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we give you Diane Desierto’s favourites.

Why do we have a global economy, what is it for, what comprises it, and to what ends and purposes do we regulate it?  Somewhat unconsciously, my favourite books for 2018 directly or indirectly related to these questions. Throughout 2018, I relished reading (or rereading, in some of these) Hersch Lauterpacht’s classic International Law and Human Rights (F.A. Praeger Press, 1950), followed by Louis Meuleman’s Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Framework for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (Routledge, 2018); David Pilling’s The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Penguin Random House UK, 2018), and Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018).  These books proved illuminating this year in my ongoing thematic and granular search for answers to the above questions.

Hersch Lauterpacht’s International Law and Human Rights is an apt reminder of how modern international law, at its inception, fundamentally serves the ends and aims of human rights in free and just societies. Lauterpacht makes his argument in three parts – showing in The Rights of Man and the Law of Nations that the concept of international peace is inseparable from the vindication of human dignity through human rights; elaborating human rights provisions central to the UN Charter in Human Rights under the Charter of the United Nations; and concluding with a detailed set of recommendations (recall, this was long before the development of the major human rights treaties today) for the International Bill of the Rights of Man.  Read the rest of this entry…

 
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Are “Transparency” Procedures and Local Community “Consultations” Enough? A Human Rights “Feedback Loop” to International Economic Law Reforms of 2018

Published on December 12, 2018        Author: 

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It is nearly the end of 2018, and so many “reform” efforts are underway throughout all realms of international economic law that one is inclined to think all our good intentions must lead somewhere, eventually.  There is an UNCITRAL Working Group for Reforming Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) that involves Member States, and to a different degree, academic inputs through the Academic Forum (see the blog’s series of posts on these authored by Anthea Roberts, found here, here, here, here, and here).  New trade agreements have been announced, such as the NAFTA renamed 2.0 version United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, recently discussed here by the Max Planck Institute’s Pedro Villareal and Franz Ebert), a renegotiated Korea-US trade agreement (details here), or the forthcoming entry into force of the US-less 11-nation bloc of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) on 30 December 2018 (see details here).  With the United States having changed its defense and leadership of the WTO and the multilateral trading system towards a policy of not shirking from initiating open bilateral trade wars to force renegotiations – such as the temporary trade truce with China (contents here) and tariffs slapped on the EU, Canada, and other allies (see Joseph Weiler’s ever prescient portents about the precarious US position here, and further discussions here, here, and here), it is not at all surprising that other States this year have been strategically realigning their economic partnerships, whether it be through deepening EU-Africa trade partnerships; Japan recently concluding a new trade pact with the EU; or more countries moving out of the Western orbit of economic influence towards China’s own expansive march with debt-financed investment projects in the Belt and Road Initiative; or China and/or India leading the state of negotiations at the pending 16-member mega-regional agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), allegedly set to be finalized by early 2019.  All these, apart from the uncertainties of securing any prospective UK-EU treaty, which, as of this writing is still up in the air after British PM Theresa May pulled back from forcing a catastrophic vote at the House of Commons (noting, of course, that the European Court of Justice issued a landmark ruling on 10 December 2018 declaring that the UK can voluntarily revoke Brexit).

Political expediencies and treaty negotiation pragmatisms aside, we have to wonder whether the “efficiency” of these developments will indeed result in “efficacy” or “effectiveness”, and for which constituencies of the international economic system.  Despite the multitude of public policy-driven reform efforts (such as expanding amicus participation, transparency guarantees, as well as public consultations in ISDS, setting out more detailed environmental and labor chapters in trade agreements, or announcing more infrastructure financing avenues for developing countries in new institutions and initiatives), what I have not seen in a year of attempted reforms is any deliberate shift towards broadening global economic governance beyond the usual voices at the negotiating table.  The same political, economic, intellectual, or social elites are crafting the new rules and institutions in the international economic system, with the contours of any local community consultations actually left to be operationalized according to the political auspices and national mechanisms of individual States.  To a great extent, this is understandable, since a relentless cacophony of voices might be anathema to achieving any final treaty text or clear institutional decision (e.g. the Aristotelian version of the tyranny of an extreme democracy).  But to a large extent, this “business as usual” approach remains just as discomfiting as the many paeans regularly being made these days (see here, here, here, for example), towards building in some kind of consultations process for local communities that are somehow intended to depict a “more inclusive” international economic system.  Is it enough that local communities are “being heard” by their respective States, or should the new rules and reforming institutions of the international economic system also start making sure that States are indeed listening?  

Once communities have been “consulted”, one way or another, where is the (hopefully objective and largely depoliticized) “feedback loop” that enables local communities to actually see what the State’s ultimate decision-making process has been with respect to reforming international economic treaties, decisions, and institutions?  That process remains shrouded in mystery – owing to the usual fictions of States claiming to need opacity during hard treaty bargaining.  I make the (rather obvious, but surprisingly still ignored) argument, in this post, that States’ human rights obligations to their populations make it imperative to build in a genuine “feedback loop” for any consultations or transparency procedure that may be contemplated in the continuing reform of international economic law.  A feedback loop is a necessary control mechanism in the communication process that enables communicants to verify whether their respective inputs or views have been used, recycled, revised, or discarded by the decision-maker.  To the best of my knowledge, this still doesn’t exist in the architecture of international economic law and its limited spaces for public participation.  There is “consultation” but no meaningful opportunities for communities’ real-time verification of what their States have promised, traded, conceded, or otherwise bargained at the negotiating table.

It is not enough that local communities just be “heard”, but we should all be properly informed of how community views translate (or not) into the State’s international economic decision, so as to ensure that communities can strategically and effectively participate as fellow constituents of the international economic system.  This is all the more urgent as States persist in these reforms through to the new year, when communities are, in the first place, at the frontlines of the international economic system’s felt impacts on environment, health, economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights.  If there is any constituency that deserves the information on how States have been making all of these reform decisions, it is our communities who have to live through the consequences of these decisions, years after all the politicians and negotiators have come and gone.  With better information as to States’ actual international economic decisions coming from an actual “feedback loop”, communities are better empowered to choose (or reject) leaders who make these lasting decisions.  The “feedback loop” is thus central to a genuine right to self-determination, in its economic and political dimensions.

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From the Indigenous Peoples’ Environmental Catastrophe in the Amazon to the Investors’ Dispute on Denial of Justice: The Chevron v. Ecuador August 2018 PCA Arbitral Award and the Dearth of International Environmental Remedies for Private Victims

Published on September 13, 2018        Author: 

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The recent 30 August 2018 Chevron v. Ecuador arbitral award is yet another example of the ongoing asymmetries of protection in the much-beleaguered investor-State dispute settlement system, in which States have generously afforded protections to foreign investors to bring suits directly against States, without creating parallel avenues for affected local communities and/or indigenous peoples to initiate arbitration proceedings directly against either foreign investors or irresponsible States. Despite all our collective best efforts at ongoing reform in UNCITRAL (see updates on Working Group III’s mission on ISDS Reform here), ICSID (see their latest rules amendment project here) and elsewhere, I retain serious doubts as to whether investor-State dispute settlement could ever symmetrically represent the environmental and cultural interests of indigenous peoples and local communities, as effectively as it does investors’ claims to treaty protection and (significantly substantial) compensatory relief.  Today, environmental plaintiffs have to navigate between an unwieldy, unpredictable, and quite disparate mix of remedies before domestic (administrative or judicial) courts or tribunals of their home States, potentially some regional courts (such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) or treaty monitoring bodies (whether those specifically created in environmental treaties or human rights treaties), other foreign courts in other countries that permit some environmental tort claims, and possibly, any cases that their home State can bring under diplomatic protection to pursue remedies against foreign nationals or the home States of these foreign nationals.  And all these frequently take place in the context of abject differences of power, resources, and capacities between environmental and human rights victims as claimants against either States and/or foreign investors, vis-a-vis foreign investors as claimants or States as respondents.  It’s not at all hyperbolic to observe that, with respect to the international environmental system, the deck already appears heavily stacked against environmental plaintiffs at the outset.  

The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration presents a crystal example of how what was originally an environmental dispute seeking remediation for one of the worst environmental disasters in history involving oil spillage into 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest – ultimately mutated into the investors’ denial of justice claim in investor-State arbitration.  At least, in my view, while  the erudite tribunal in this case thoroughly set out the technical legal reasoning in its award on the precise legal issues of the investment treaty breaches alleged, the award itself more broadly demonstrates that we may well be at the point that a dedicated separate international dispute settlement system might already be necessary to properly adjudicate victims’ claims in human rights and environmental disputes. (Notably, other scholars refer to this dispute to highlight the illegitimacy or alleged exces de poivre of arbitral tribunals making assessments and evaluations of the acts or decisions of domestic courts and judicial systems ipso facto – a significant  heavily disputed structural matter about the current investor-State dispute settlement system, which is, however, not the law and policy observation I make here.) Some efforts looking beyond the narrow ISDS framework, among others, include projects such as the drafting of the new Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration; the tentative and non-binding 15 September 2016 policy paper of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court exploring the possibility of prosecuting environmental crimes; as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s suite of environmental dispute resolution procedures (interstate arbitration under environmental treaties, mixed dispute resolution under environmental instruments and contracts, specialized environmental rules for arbitration and conciliation).  To date, these initiatives have not gone much further beyond their incubation.

The most difficult aspect of the Chevron v. Ecuador case is the fact that the arbitration turned on the issue of Ecuador’s investment treaty breaches over what Chevron alleged were very troubling serious acts of fraud and corruption committed by lawyers and judges to produce a favorable 2011 Ecuador court judgment for the environmental plaintiffs.  The fraud and corruption allegations have long since overshadowed the urgency of decades of environmental damage that have largely gone without significant and continuing remedy, alongside ongoing health problems from toxic contamination that have impacted indigenous peoples and local communities for generations. (Note: this pollution disaster originated long before I or generations of current international lawyers were even born.) The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration succeeded in laying the blame on Ecuador since, for the tribunal, Chevron had already been released from its obligations of remediation under the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements.  Unfortunately, the arbitral award does not lay out any detailed environmental analysis to explain why contracts such as the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements would be sufficient to release private parties from short-term, medium-term, and long-term remediation efforts to restore the ecosystem, and whether such releases were at all consistent with international public policy and Ecuador’s own commitments under international law (especially international environmental treaties and customary international environmental law).  Neither did the tribunal explore whether Ecuador alone had the right to conclude the Settlement Agreements on behalf of all the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities, or if Ecuador could indeed effectively and exclusively represent the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities in the investor-State arbitration considering how its government agents exercised oversight (or lack thereof) with respect to the environmental disaster.  Because environmental plaintiffs, indigenous peoples, and affected communities continue to be dependent on the host State of the investment to vindicate their claims against foreign investors, the investor-State dispute settlement system simply cannot lend any of these environmental, indigenous, and local plaintiffs any real, much less effective, voice over their fight to restore the Amazon to health.  While plaintiffs are mired in multiple litigations and arbitrations around the world to seek accountability from either Chevron and its affiliates or their own government in Ecuador, there is virtually no dedicated State, inter-State, regional, or public-private partnership cooperative efforts to try and achieve environmental restoration in the affected 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon, as depicted in the map below (source here):

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