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Déjà vu? Investment Court Proposals from 1960 and Today

Published on May 15, 2018        Author:  and
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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…