Sir Frank Berman KCMG QC is Visiting Professor of International Law at the University of Oxford and a member of Essex Court Chambers where his practice involves a wide range of international law issues, including international arbitration.
There can be no-one active in the field of investment arbitration who hasn’t been challenged, or even perplexed, or at least confronted by the question of the relationship between the guarantee of fair and equitable treatment for foreign investments or investors stipulated in bilateral or multilateral treaties and what is usually referred to as the ‘minimum standard’ laid down by customary international law. But it won’t be possible for that debate to continue in future without reference to Martins Paparinskis’s superbly researched monograph. More precisely, no excuse will remain for a failure to bring into the discussion the available materials bearing on the question, all of which are now gathered together between one set of slim covers, both those which are directly relevant to the issue in hand and those which are of interest by way of suggestive analogy.
But it is the very wealth and depth of the analysis that brings the focus back onto the underlying question itself, and how valid or how useful it is. Listening to the argument (as I regularly do) from the arbitrator’s chair, about whether the Parties to a particular bilateral investment treaty intended ‘fair and equitable treatment’ as a reference to the customary law standard, or to mean something else, I find myself wondering just as regularly in my inner mind how that is going to help me solve the dispute in the case before me: if the treaty provision should be understood as referring to customary law, then what is the customary law it is referring to? If it is a reference to something else, then what was it the Contracting States wanted to add to (or subtract from?) the customary standard as they understood it? It is of course possible that those queries might be answered by the travaux préparatoires if one had them (and for bilateral treaties one usually doesn’t). But it is equally possible that the Contracting Parties had no common view as to the customary standard, or that they never even bothered to ask themselves the question, but in either case wanted instead to establish a treaty rule on which future investors would be able to rely. That, after all, is one of the purposes of making treaties.
It’s for reasons of that kind that most of the arbitral tribunals on which I’ve sat have come to the conclusion that the question is essentially an academic one, and that their task is not to solve the academic debate but to make sense of the treaty in front of them, on its own terms, profiting for that purpose from the very sensible and practical set of provisions on treaty interpretation which the Vienna Convention offers. The process entails, amongst other things, taking ‘fair and equitable’ as the portmanteau phrase it plainly is, and not trying to disaggregate it into a ‘fairness’ component and an ‘equitable’ component. Nor have I found that arbitrators experience much difficulty in understanding the import of the phrase, as a broad and general rule enunciated in advance in such a way as to be capable of application to a wide and infinitely variable set of future cases and circumstances which the negotiating Parties couldn’t even begin to enumerate or contemplate at the time of their negotiation.
That leads me to a number of observations, not all of them profound. Read the rest of this entry…