Home Articles posted by Taylor St. John

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reform: Plausible Folk Theories

Published on February 13, 2020        Author:  and


As observers of the UNCITRAL process, we watch the debates with great interest, writing about the emergence of different camps, giving perspectives on how the process fits within broader geopolitical developments, and offering potential models for moving forward. One thing that we are often struck by is how some of the field’s underlying narratives are being contested and reframed. In any reform process, some scripts about the old system are kept and others are discarded or rewritten. What does that process look like? At UNCITRAL in late January, we were able to watch it occur with respect to one long-held narrative: that investment treaties with investor–state arbitration are important for attracting and retaining foreign investment.

Plausible Folk Theories

Terence Halliday, a professor of the sociology of global governance and a long-time observer of UNCITRAL, coined the term ‘plausible folk theories’ to refer to the way in which ‘vast enterprises of global regulation and lawmaking [often] proceed on weakly founded justificatory rhetorics’. What he means by this is that many rules and regulations are passed at the global level based on assertions that are not subject to empirical testing. Instead, negotiators and policy makers frequently rely on assertions that sound reasonable but remain unverified.

A plausible folk theory isn’t necessarily wrong about the facts, it just isn’t verified. It may be contrary to empirical evidence, it may not. In the absence of factual support, what makes a folk theory plausible? Parsimony (it is simple), face validity (it sounds right), rhetorical compactness (it can be easily expressed), ambiguity (it papers over divisions), affinity with extant beliefs (it accords with prior assumptions), and unexamined premises and logics (it relies on assumptions and isn’t designed to withstand rigorous testing). Of all of these, the first two are probably the most important: does it have the simple sound of truth?

Arguably, the investment treaty system has long been built on plausible folk theories. If asked why states sign investment treaties, most people in the field historically would have answered ‘because it depoliticizes investment disputes’ or ‘because it increases foreign investment’ or ‘because it contributes to the rule of law’. These arguments sound right. They are plausible. They have the sound of truth to them. Yet, as the field has evolved, these claims have come under scrutiny in the academic literature and some have not stood up well. But is this evidence used in global governance debates? If not, why? Read the rest of this entry…


UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: What Makes Something Fly?

Published on February 11, 2020        Author:  and


When conducting an international negotiation, the Chair has to ask him or herself: what makes something fly? This question really has two parts. The first concerns the negotiations themselves. Once you’ve taken off and achieved a certain cruising speed and altitude, how do you keep the momentum going? Will some flight paths be smoother than others? Are you moving toward a safe landing zone, even if it is some distance away? The second concerns the products you are developing in those negotiations. Are some options more aerodynamic than others? Are some more likely to achieve lift off? What component parts need to be designed and built? Is there an overall plan about how the pieces might be put together in the end?

These are questions we thought about as we watched the UNCITRAL process unfold in late January. On one level, it might have been the week when one could have expected to see some turbulence. Since the process started three years ago, this was the first time that the Multilateral Investment Court was formally on the agenda for discussion and it is clear that the views of states are divided on its merits. But on Monday, the Chair adeptly steered the group from high level questions (Is an investment court better than ISDS? Is a particular state for or against such a court?) to more technical engineering work (e.g., What are the ways of constructing an appeal? Which options are available for financing a permanent body? What issues need to be resolved regarding enforcement? What are the options for appointments?).

This approach meant that, instead of being an arena in which states rethink the system’s fundamentals (eg what are the purposes of investment treaties) or engage in high level policy positioning (eg do they support a court or arbitration), the Working Group began to feel a bit like a team of engineers breaking down a complex design challenge into its component parts. Each part undergoes preliminary analysis and troubleshooting in the Working Group, with states suggesting potential models or raising design concerns and considerations with the Secretariat, and tasking the Secretariat with further research and with creating prototypes for each part. Many delegates proved themselves to be serious engineers, coming well-prepared to engage in technical questions. In the process, momentum toward a panoply of reforms seems to be building as participants work collectively on individual design issues. Read the rest of this entry…


UNCITRAL and ISDS Reform: Visualising a Flexible Framework

Published on October 24, 2019        Author:  and

In UNCITRAL, states have broken through the impasse of the incrementalist and systemic reformer camps. They have all agreed that they want to pursue systemic reform, but they have different ideas about what that entails and what to prioritise. In broad terms, agreement seems to be coalescing around three main blocks of reforms: updating some of the procedural rules; enacting some sort of optional structural changes for dispute settlement; and creating a mechanism to support developing states with handling their treaties and disputes. Not every state is supportive of every proposal, but most seem open to pursuing all three in a (somewhat) simultaneous fashion.

That leaves an important question, which is starting to bubble up on the side lines of the negotiations: how might these different reforms fit together? Instead of treating the proposals as oppositional, could a flexible framework be developed that would allow multiple reforms to be developed over time in order to create a more holistic approach? What would this look like? What are the component parts or building blocks and how might they fit together?

In this blog series, we typically provide analytical frameworks for (1) understanding how the process is unfolding, including the politics of different camps and the sociology of different actors, and (2) predicting how the process is likely to evolve. In this blog, we are doing something a bit different. We are taking concerns that states have identified in the process and sketching a framework for understanding how they might be brought together. The framework we present below is not simply a descriptive synthesis of the discussions to date, but rather a way to look at the various options raised in their entirety — including how they overlap and relate to one another. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis
Comments Off on UNCITRAL and ISDS Reform: Visualising a Flexible Framework

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reform: In Sickness and In Health

Published on October 23, 2019        Author:  and

UNCITRAL Working Group III met in Vienna last week to continue its discussions about how to reform investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). In April 2019, the Working Group agreed that the ISDS system suffered from significant problems and required reform. In colloquial terms, the system was causing a variety of illnesses; states needed to diagnose the underlying causes and prescribe cures. This blog traces the debate dynamics as states considered different treatment plans to restore the system to health. In tomorrow’s blog, we provide a first conceptualisation of how these different treatments might be weaved together in a flexible framework.

Sickness: Causes and Cures

During Phases 1 and 2 of this process, it sometimes felt like states were complaining about having suffered from various illnesses arising from the system. These illnesses included very large awards, inconsistent decisions, frivolous cases, arbitrator conflicts and excessive fees. Different states at UNCITRAL had succumbed to different illnesses, but the general sentiment expressed was that the existing system had created unhealthy pathologies that needed treatment.

In Phase 3, states are recognising that that they are not only patients, they are also doctors. Some (powerful) states have long seen themselves as doctors, able to treat problems with available tools, while other states have either not seen themselves as doctors or not had access to the same tools. At UNCITRAL, there has been a clear shift: all states now recognise that they have individual and collective agency to reform the system. But they disagree on the best course of treatment.

Should the Working Group just treat specific illnesses? States adopting this approach favour non-structural reforms and coalesce around a multilateral instrument on procedural reforms, which they argue would provide significant and speedy fixes to the existing system. Read the rest of this entry…

Filed under: EJIL Analysis

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Agenda-Widening and Paradigm-Shifting

Published on September 20, 2019        Author:  and

On 17 July 2019, South Africa made its submission to UNCITRAL on investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) reform in which it seeks a “paradigm-shift” in investment law. In keeping with our description of South Africa as a “widener” in the UNCITRAL debates, the submission brings a wide-angle lens to the negotiations, first placing ISDS in a broader context and then discussing a multitude of possible reforms, several of which have not been on the UNCITRAL agenda so far. Time will tell whether South Africa seeks to get other states to rally around its cause, but for now its submission represents an important anchor in the incremental/structural/paradigmatic reform dynamics.

  1. Toward a New Paradigm for Investment Treaties and ISDS

The South African submission starts from first principles, by describing the ideological foundations on which investment treaties rest. It highlights that investment treaties were tied to a narrow vision of development that prioritized “economic growth through the free market, individual property and free flow of capital” and limited the role of a state to “securing property rights to optimize market development.” Read the rest of this entry…

Comments Off on UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Agenda-Widening and Paradigm-Shifting

UNCITRAL and ISDS Reform: China’s Proposal

Published on August 5, 2019        Author:  and

On 19 July 2019, China submitted its proposal on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) reform to UNCITRAL. A Chinese version is available, though an English translation is yet to be posted. China reaffirms its commitment to ISDS as an important mechanism for resolving investor-state disputes under public international law. However, it takes note of significant criticisms of ISDS and suggests various pathways for reform including, most notably, supporting the study of a permanent appellate body. In combination with the European Union’s “open architecture” approach, where the EU has signalled that it is open to working with other states that might wish to sign onto an appellate body and/or the multilateral investment court, this means that two of the world’s three biggest economies have now signalled support for significant reform of ISDS, including the possible creation of a permanent appellate body.

China’s UNCITRAL submission

China began in the investment treaty system as an ISDS sceptic but, over the years, has become an ISDS convert. In this submission, China starts from the position that ISDS plays an important role in protecting the rights of foreign investors and promoting cross-border investment, as well as helping to build the rule of law in investment governance and avoiding economic disputes between investors and states escalating into political battles. Given this, China affirms its belief that ISDS is overall a mechanism that is worth maintaining. Given China’s growing interests as a capital exporter, particularly along the Belt and Road route, this endorsement of ISDS should not come as a surprise and is in line with the evolution of China’s treaty practice toward embracing ISDS over a full range of disputes.

Despite this general affirmation, China recognizes that there have been significant criticisms made of ISDS that need to be addressed. These include that: the current system lacks an institutionalized and reasonable error-correcting mechanism; the current system of ad hoc awards lacks stability and predictability; the professionalism and independence of arbitrators has been put into question; third party funding is affecting the balance of parties’ rights; and investment arbitration proceedings are long and costly. Of note, China also states that the phenomenon that the arbitrators and lawyers of investment arbitration are limited to a few experts deserves special attention. China states that ISDS should be more open and inclusive with increased participation of experts from developing countries. Read the rest of this entry…


UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Battles over Naming and Framing

Published on April 30, 2019        Author:  and

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.

Read the rest of this entry…

Comments Off on UNCITRAL and ISDS Reforms: Battles over Naming and Framing

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

Published on April 30, 2019        Author:  and

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…


Déjà vu? Investment Court Proposals from 1960 and Today

Published on May 15, 2018        Author:  and

It is not business as usual in investment dispute resolution these days. In late April 2018 in New York, governments and experts met under the auspices of UNCITRAL Working Group IIIto continue vigorously debating how investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) should be reformed or replacedby an investment court. This is not the first investment court proposal, however.

In the 1950s and 1960s, eminent international lawyers from around the world — Martin Domke, George Haight, F A Mann, Gunnar Lagergren, Elihu Lauterpacht, Raisa Khalfina, and Ignaz Seidl-Hohenveldern, to name a few — discussed an international investment court, notably at International Law Association conferences in 1958, 1960, and 1962. In 1960, ILA participants compared a court and arbitration directly, discussing “Draft Statutes of the Arbitral Tribunal for Foreign Investment” and “Draft Statutes of the Foreign Investments Court.”

Views in 1960, like today, varied sharply. No expert consensus existed that arbitration was better than a court for resolving investor-state disputes. This lack of consensus echoed even earlier debates: in 1905, when ASIL was founded, it was directed “exclusively to the interests of international law as distinct from international arbitration” (as Mark Mazower notes, page 92) because arbitration involved a compromise between interests rather than fidelity to the law. For ASIL founder Elihu Root, arbitration was an advance toward peace, but “the next advance to be urged along this line is to pass on from an arbitral tribunal…to a permanent court composed of judges who devote their entire time to the performance of judicial duties.” (Root might smile if he could see European officials coming to ASIL to discuss why an investment court should replace arbitration.) Unlike ASIL’s founders, arbitration’s supporters in 1905 praised the modesty of its procedures and goals—it was imperfect but feasible.

Feasibility was emphasized again in the 1960s, by attendees at the 1960 ILA conference and at the ICSID Convention’s drafting a few years later. This perception of feasibility stemmed in large part from assumptions made about arbitration in the 1960s, including that arbitral tribunals would not be agents of legal development, that appointing arbitrators was simple, and that arbitration was low cost. One can no longer make these assumptions about investor-state arbitration.

Today, reforming arbitration and creating a court are not mutually exclusive, nor are they only options under consideration at UNCITRAL. They are “elephants in the room” at UNCITRAL, however, so it’s interesting to compare how these two dispute resolution mechanisms look to participants today with how they looked in 1960. In this post, we cover three issues: legal development, appointments, and costs. Read the rest of this entry…