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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Battles over Naming and Framing

Published on April 30, 2019        Author:  and
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Editor’s Note:  This week, we will be featuring several posts critically examining the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process, which held its latest Working Group III meetings in New York on April 2019.  Yesterday’s introduction from our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and UNCITRAL Academic Forum Chair Malcolm Langford summarized key points of contention raised by States as to the narrower procedural reforms to ISDS as the mandate of UNCITRAL Working Group III.  The next series of posts this week focus on broader issues and substantive questions that suffuse the reform process. In this morning’s post and this post, Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and her co-author Taylor St. John address geopolitical and ideological issues that affect ISDS reforms. Anthea Roberts attends UNCITRAL Working Group III as part of the Australian delegation but she acts and writes in her independent academic capacity. Taylor St John attends UNCITRAL as an observer from PluriCourts, University of Oslo.

A striking feature of the debates over ISDS reform in the last UNCITRAL session were the battles over naming and framing. In some ways, these battles reflect the power that names and frames have in shaping our understanding of reality, guiding and limiting debates, and making some approaches or positions seem more obvious or appealing than others. In another way, these debates often represented proxy battles for deeper, substantive divisions among various states of the type we addressed in our previous blog on the Divided West and the Battle for and by the Rest.

What is in a name? Does framing matter?

When we imagine negotiations between governments, we often picture hard bargaining over bracketed text. In reality, the early stages of negotiation are often more about framing, particularly when negotiations deal with new issues or evolving processes. Framing plays a crucial role in creating the conceptual categories through which participants understand dynamics and formulate or communicate their positions. Every frame simultaneously reveals and obscures, both providing insights and limiting vision.

Naming is important because the names attached to positions can be relatively neutral or can be designed to make some positions seem more attractive or inevitable than others. Actors can attempt to use names dispassionately to describe situations or as advocacy tools to support particular positions. Sometimes it is not clear which is being done. Sometimes different actors can be using the same names in different ways.

Names and frames are often in flux during negotiations. Particularly in a consensus driven negotiation, we should expect naming and framing to shift over time in order to forge consensus among disparate groups. Heated debates in the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process over the use of the names “incremental” and “systemic” provide a good illustration of these phenomena.

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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: The Divided West and the Battle by and for the Rest

Published on April 30, 2019        Author:  and
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Editor’s Note:  This week, we will be featuring several posts critically examining the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process, which held its latest Working Group III meetings in New York on April 2019.  Yesterday’s introduction from our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and UNCITRAL Academic Forum Chair Malcolm Langford summarized key points of contention raised by States as to the narrower procedural reforms to ISDS as the mandate of UNCITRAL Working Group III.  The next series of posts this week focus on broader issues and substantive questions that suffuse the reform process. Today, Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and her co-author Taylor St. John address geopolitical issues that inevitably affect ISDS reforms. Anthea Roberts attends UNCITRAL Working Group III as part of the Australian delegation but she acts and writes in her independent academic capacity. Taylor St John attends UNCITRAL as an observer from PluriCourts, University of Oslo.

The UNCITRAL debates over ISDS reforms can serve as a real-world laboratory for observing changes in the national interests and policies of different countries, as well as shifts in their geopolitical weight and alignments. As part of a commitment to transparency, UNCITRAL decided to allow a wide range of observers in the room and to make recordings of the debates available. Such transparency gives non-state actors a chance to analyse these dynamics in real time and to consider not only what they mean for ISDS reforms but how they reflect and reinforce broader shifts in international economic governance. During the latest Working Group III meeting in April in New York, we observed a divided West and an emerging battle by and for the Rest.

The Divided West

The ISDS reform debates reached UNCITRAL despite a division within ‘the West.’ For multiple reasons, most notably that ad hoc investor-state arbitration had become politically toxic within Europe as a form of ‘private justice,’ the European Union proposed the creation of a multilateral investment court. Although initially reluctant to bring these issues to UNCITRAL, the European Union and Canada ultimately supported these reform debates going forward within a multilateral UN body. Other significant powers, including the United States and Japan, were opposed to both the creation of a court and these reform debates going forward in UNCITRAL. Read the rest of this entry…

 

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Hastening slowly

Published on April 29, 2019        Author:  and
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Editor’s Note:  This week, we will be featuring several posts critically examining the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process, which held its latest Working Group III meetings in New York on April 2019.  We begin with today’s introduction from Anthea Roberts and Malcolm Langford.  Malcolm Langford attends UNCITRAL Working Group III as Chair of the ISDS Academic Forum and a representative of Pluricourts, University of Oslo. He writes here in his independent academic capacity.Anthea Roberts attends UNCITRAL Working Group III as part of the Australian delegation but she acts and writes in her independent academic capacity. 

UNCITRAL’s Working Group III on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) reform continues to attract substantial and growing interest. In the first week of April 2019, a record number of states and observers descended on New York to clarify the final list of concerns and establish a work plan for moving forward on concrete reforms. This session continued the earlier trend of hastening slowly. A recognition of the need for reform amongst states is clear but the tempo remains modest given the reticence of some and the panoply of reform options being considered. This blog post sums up the four main takeaways of the week and will be followed by three reflective analytical posts on the West/Rest politics underlying the process, the role of academics in international politics, debates around naming and framing (“we are all systemic reformers now”) together with a concluding post. Read the rest of this entry…

 

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Moving to Reform Options … the Politics

Published on November 8, 2018        Author: 
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In the last blog, I provided an update on the UNCITRAL process, including the consensus decision from Vienna last week to move forward to consider possible reforms of investor-state arbitration. This decision is very significant. But to get a sense of how this decision was reached and where the process might be heading, I thought it would be helpful to provide my sense of the politics of the process as well as some projections about how it might move forward.

As stated previously, I am a member of the Australian delegation but I am included in that delegation in my independent academic capacity, so nothing in my writings or talks should be taken to reflect Australia’s views. My academic views are exactly that: mine and academic. Nevertheless, I hope that these views are informed. These blogs are based on official interventions during the UNCITRAL plenary sessions as well as discussions with a diverse range of actors from the process.

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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Moving to Reform Options … the Process

Published on November 7, 2018        Author: 
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Last week has been described as a watershed moment for ISDS reform. During a meeting in Vienna, states decided by consensus on the desirability of developing reforms in UNCITRAL with respect to investor-state arbitration. States now have an opportunity to make proposals for a work plan about what reforms to consider and how to go about considering them. To the extent that the tide has turned on traditional investor-state arbitration, it is now up to states to tell us where they want to sail.

As you might imagine, reaching a decision like this involved quite a process, along with a lot of politics. In this blog, I set out the process in terms of what was decided in Vienna, what was not decided, and what the next steps will be for moving forward in 2019. In the next blog, I will provide some context to this development, giving some insights into the politics of the process as well as some projections about how this process might develop.

This reform process will be long and its ultimate outcome remains unknowable. But the momentum for and direction of reforms are becoming increasingly clear. The calls for systemic reform are rising, though different states may mean different things by “systemic.”

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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Concerns about Costs, Transparency, Third Party Funding and Counterclaims

Published on June 6, 2018        Author:  and
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As explained in a previous post, we have put together four posts that compile the most relevant quotes from the first two meetings of the UNCITRAL Working Group sessions on states’ concerns about investor-state dispute settlement. To facilitate discussions about the desirability of reforms and their potential nature, we have organized these quotes into key themes that emerged during the meetings. This blog sets out quotes about costs, transparency, third party funding and counterclaims. The other blogs deal with concerns about:

  1. Facts versus Perceptions and Systemic Problems or Solutions
  2. Consistency, Predictability and Correctness
  3. Arbitral Appointments, Incentives and Legitimacy

We avoid editorializing because we think that it is important for other stakeholders to hear states’ concerns expressed in their own words. We have grouped states’ concerns under headings but otherwise have kept the interventions on each sub-topic in the order in which they were made. For an analytical framework for understanding these reform dynamics, see Anthea Roberts, Incremental, Systemic, and Paradigmatic Reform of Investor-State Arbitration, 112 AJIL _ (2018) (forthcoming).

  1. Costs & duration of arbitral proceedings

SOUTH AFRICA – on significant costs of arbitration: “In terms of the issue of costs when it comes to ISDS, we believe that the amounts at stake in investment treaty arbitration are often very high. Claims for compensation do amount to billions of dollars in most cases and in this context entering into treaties with the investor dispute settlement clauses carry significant financial costs for governments particularly the developing countries whose fiscal position can be seriously affected even when cases have been discontinued or when the outcome is said to be in favor of the state. The state will usually have to bear the exorbitant costs of legal defense and arbitrators fees. Furthermore large claims may serve to sustain threats of arbitration increasing the bargaining power of investors in informal discussions with governments to water down regulatory measures or to settle a dispute.” Read the rest of this entry…

 
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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Concerns about Arbitral Appointments, Incentives and Legitimacy

Published on June 6, 2018        Author:  and
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As explained in a previous post, we have put together four posts that compile the most relevant quotes from the first two meetings of the UNCITRAL Working Group sessions on states’ concerns about investor-state dispute settlement. To facilitate discussions about the desirability of reforms and their potential nature, we have organized these quotes into key themes that emerged during the meetings. This blog sets out quotes about arbitral appointments, incentives and legitimacy. The other blogs deal with concerns about:

  1. Facts versus Perceptions and Systemic Problems or Solutions
  2. Consistency, Predictability and Correctness
  3. Costs, Transparency, Third Party Funding and Counterclaims

We avoid editorializing because we think that it is important for other stakeholders to hear states’ concerns expressed in their own words. We have grouped states’ concerns under headings but otherwise have kept the interventions on each sub-topic in the order in which they were made. For an analytical framework for understanding these reform dynamics, see Anthea Roberts, Incremental, Systemic, and Paradigmatic Reform of Investor-State Arbitration, 112 AJIL _ (2018) (forthcoming).

  1. General observations: the lack of independence and impartiality of adjudicators

INDIA – on the problem of pro-investor and pro-state arbitrators for impartiality and independence: “The very fact that there are investors arbitrators and there are states arbitrators is a testimony that impartiality and independence is lacking in the system. The system is lacking in adequate ethical requirements. And there’s a lot of conflict of interest in this system which needs to be corrected. Third party funding is a problem as well. The mix of third party funding, multiple hatting and lack of adequate ethical standards has the potential to derail the system.” Read the rest of this entry…

 
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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Concerns about Consistency, Predictability and Correctness

Published on June 5, 2018        Author:  and
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As explained in a previous post, we have put together four posts that compile the most relevant quotes from the first two meetings of the UNCITRAL Working Group sessions on states’ concerns about investor-state dispute settlement. To facilitate discussions about the desirability of reforms and their potential nature, we have organized these quotes into key themes that emerged during the meetings. This blog sets out quotes about predictability, consistency and correctness. The other blogs deal with concerns about:

  1. Facts versus Perceptions and Systemic Problems or Solutions 
  2. Arbitral Appointments, Incentives and Legitimacy 
  3. Costs, Transparency, Third Party Funding and Counterclaims

We avoid editorializing because we think that it is important for other stakeholders to hear states’ concerns expressed in their own words. We have grouped states’ concerns under headings but otherwise have kept the interventions on each sub-topic in the order in which they were made. For an analytical framework for understanding these reform dynamics, see Anthea Roberts, Incremental, Systemic, and Paradigmatic Reform of Investor-State Arbitration, 112 AJIL _ (2018) (forthcoming).

  1. Inconsistency and lack of predictability:

EUROPEAN UNION – on the relationship between costs and consistency and predictability: “We think that the system has an effect of increasing those costs and hence by looking at the system we may be able to identify ways to gradually bring about reductions and these costs. We see this happening in three ways. The first way is because the system as it currently functions does not bring about predictability and does not bring about consistency. What does this mean. It means that in any given case before any freshly constituted ad hoc tribunal, a lawyer who is doing his or her job properly will make any possible argument that can be made legally in that particular situation. It doesn’t matter if that particular legal argument has been dismissed on multiple occasions by other tribunals. It may be the case that that particular ad hoc tribunal will accept the argumentation and so any diligent lawyer will have to make that argument again. So we think increasing and dealing with the issue of predictability and consistency will help address the issue of costs.” Read the rest of this entry…

 
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UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: What are States’ Concerns?

Published on June 5, 2018        Author:  and
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What are states’ concerns about investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS)? To help answer that question, we have put together four posts that compile the most relevant quotes from the first two meetings of the UNCITRAL Working Group sessions. To facilitate discussions about the desirability of reforms and their potential nature, we have organized these quotes into key themes that emerged during the meetings.

As explained in a previous post, UNCITRAL granted Working Group III a mandate to: (i) identify and consider concerns regarding ISDS; (ii) consider whether reform was desirable in light of any identified concerns; and (iii) if the Working Group were to conclude that reform was desirable, develop any relevant solutions to be recommended to the Commission.

The mandate calls for the process to be “fully transparent” and thus recordings of the session are available online. These posts are in keeping with that call for transparency. They communicate states’ key concerns to other interested stakeholders, which is important given the disconnects that often exist between different communities in the field.

This post will list quotes about two general issues that emerged in the Working Group: whether states should be concerned with facts and perceptions, or just facts; and whether some of the problems identified were systemic in nature or called for systemic solutions. The next three blogs provide quotes about the concerns states raised with respect to the following topics:

  1. Consistency, Predictability and Correctness of Awards
  2. Arbitral Appointments, Incentives and Legitimacy
  3. Costs, Transparency, Third Party Funding and Counterclaims

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Is International Law International? Continuing the Conversation

Published on February 9, 2018        Author: 
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This post is part of the Joint Symposium that we are co-hosting with Opinio Juris on Anthea Roberts’ new book Is International Law International? (OUP, 2017). 

In the movie Shadowlands, the character C. S. Lewis says, “We read to know that we’re not alone.” For me, perhaps it is also true to say, “I write to know that I am not alone.” Implicit in Is International Law International? is a series of questions: Have you seen what I have seen? Do you analyze it in the same way? If not, what has your experience been and what do you make of that? How and why are your reactions similar to or different from mine? And what does that mean regarding whether international law is, should be and can be international?

I want to thank EJIL: Talk! and Opinio Juris for hosting, and the contributors for engaging in, this sort of dialogue. Two common themes of the contributions are that my book represents the start of a conversation rather than the final word and that it provides a platform for future research. I agree. My book is a big-picture macrosketch based on detailed microobservations that seeks to challenge existing understandings. A lot of details need to completed, analyses tested, additional points noted and implications thought through. In the spirit of continuing this exchange, I offer some reflections below.

Before doing so, I wanted to note that, reading the comments, I was struck once more by how much we approach international law from our particular national perspectives. Whether it is Vera Rusinova reflecting on international law through the iron curtain, Hélène Ruiz Fabri drawing connections with debates in the French literature, Marko Milanovic considering the differences he has experienced in the US and UK academies, or Bing Bing Jia providing insights into Chinese international law textbooks, each of us brings our biography into play when analyzing our field. Of course, this observation is part of the point of my book. But it also means that we won’t be able to access the richness of this variety, in both sources and perspectives, unless we diversify our interactions and networks. Read the rest of this entry…