The landmark WTO Panel Report on security exceptions in GATT Article XXI came out Friday last week in Russia – Traffic in Transit. I have written extensively about necessity and national emergency clauses in the past – particularly to reject the position of the supposed wholesale unreviewability of these clauses in the Schmittian sense (on GATT Article XXI exceptions here and here, and on GATT Article XX exceptions, here and here). The significant valence to this decision, in my view, does not just lie with the Panel’s reasoning (especially as to what they considered to be “objectively” determinable) and its broader implications for the current configuration of the world trading system in this era of increased Trump-driven trade wars. The greater impact of this decision’s rejection of unreviewability, I submit, will be to enable arbitral tribunals to review security defenses of States anchored on international investment treaties that have purposely grafted GATT Article XXI language.
This phenomenon may be particularly acute for the regional investment treaties of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (For the detailed analysis of these clauses, see my previous published work here.) Attempts by any ASEAN nations (such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Viet Nam, in particular) to impose, in the present or in the future, certain regulatory measures against China-funded development projects or activities of Chinese firms who are increasingly expanding their footprint (from either dredging activities and the creation of artificial islands from dredged and pulverized coral reefs; to tourism; logistics, construction, as well as energy operations in the South China Sea) could, ordinarily, be justified under the GATT Article XXI-type clause of Article 17 (Security Exceptions) in the 2010 ASEAN-China Investment Agreement. With the declared reviewability of GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit, however, ASEAN Member States should expect that these measures could be challenged (and likely reviewed by arbitral tribunals) in investor-State dispute settlement proceedings permitted under Article 14 of the same 2010 ASEAN-China Investment Agreement. This is just one illustration of the kind of deep ripple effects that the reviewability of GATT Article XXI-type security exceptions could have across many investment treaties that have kept replicating this clause (and particularly why I have generally, in my own expert work for ASEAN, cautioned against wholesale grafting of trade norms into the regional investment treaties, without setting an explicit treaty provision either rejecting or permitting the justiciability or reviewability of these provisions). Transposing trade law so unstintingly into investment law creates its own set of unexpected consequences. Notwithstanding regime differences with world trade law, investor-State arbitral tribunals may find it hard to ignore the authoritativeness of the Russia – Traffic in Transit Panel Report’s finding of reviewability of GATT Article XXI security exceptions.
This post will first give a brief summary of the Panel’s reasoning on reviewability of GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit, anticipating some of the consequences for ongoing trade wars of the United States, the EU, and Russia that depend on the unreviewability of the security exceptions clause in GATT Article XXI. (We expect extensive commentary on this landmark decision from several quarters, and this post certainly does not intend to be the last word on the full elaboration of reasons on all issues in this case.) The remaining part of this post focuses on GATT Article XXI-type security exceptions clauses in the ASEAN regional investment treaties, and how the reviewability of these clauses could potentially impact the investment and development dimension in the South China Sea disputes.