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Observations on Costs: A Response and Implications for UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms

Published on May 1, 2019        Author: 

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.  Monday’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.  In Tuesday morning’s post and Tuesday afternoon’s post, Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and her co-author Taylor St. John address geopolitical and ideological issues that affect ISDS reforms. Today we feature a response post from Academic Forum Member Susan Franck, author of the new 2019 book, Arbitration Costs: Myths and Realities in Investment Treaty Arbitration (OUP, 2019).

We are in the midst of a unique political, legal, and psychological moment. UNCITRAL Working Group III’s effort will have a legacy that affects discourse about international economic dispute settlement for decades to come. It was, therefore, with great interest, that I read the Academic Forum’s submission on EJILTalk! on costs, as costs are at the forefront of the debate.

International arbitration costs are part of what motivated my own research agenda. Whether it was my 2005 article, Legitimacy Crisis in Investment Treaty Arbitration, where I made claims about the costs of investment treaty arbitration (ITA) with a limited set of anecdotal information, or my later articles, Empirically Evaluating Claims and Rationalizing Costs, where I confronted the cold reality that I had not systematically tested my earlier assertions and instead corrected my error by offering data.

As my most recent book, Arbitration Costs, explains that ITA costs are “the dull knife that cuts both ways,” I found the framing of the cost-related mandate to be somewhat unfortunate, namely an exploration of “Excessive Costs and Insufficient Recoverability of Cost Awards.” Students of psychology know that the framing of questions affects the information sought, the processing of derivative information, and subsequent decisions. Rather than focusing on costs and cost recoverability generally—which are important concerns that should be of interest to all stakeholders—the evocative framing creates challenges for balanced and holistic analysis. As Chapter 2 of Arbitration Costs explores cognitive illusions, that likely influence debates about ITA and that my previous experiment with Anne van Aaken and others demonstrated affect arbitrator decision-making, it is vital to acknowledge that illusions of framing, negativity, and confirmation bias, among others could skew both the conversations and derivative choices at a critical inflection point. 

There are undoubtedly many thoughtful aspects of the post.  The most valuable relate to focusing on: (1) raw descriptive arbitration costs, (2) factors tribunals should consider in making cost assessments, and (3) highlighting the importance of security for costs. The observations nevertheless require a degree of caution and may benefit from rebalancing, lest policy reform presumably designed to be helpful nevertheless generate negative externalities.

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