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An Analysis of the Use of ICJ Jurisprudence in Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Published on May 13, 2019        Author: 
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Last October 2018, the International Court of Justice (“ICJ” or “the Court”) issued its merits judgment in Obligation to Negotiate Access to the Pacific Ocean (Bolivia v. Chile). In a brief passage, the Court summarily dismissed Bolivia’s argument that the doctrine of “legitimate expectations” exists in general international law outside the context of fair and equitable treatment clauses. Despite the brevity of the Court’s analysis – and the minor importance of the legitimate expectations issue in that case – this finding drew attention from media outlets dedicated to investor-State dispute settlement (“ISDS”), including IAReporter. That the discussion of legitimate expectations in the Bolivia v. Chilejudgment was considered newsworthy in the ISDS sphere is a reflection of the importance that ISDS practitioners place on ICJ jurisprudence. As Professor Alain Pellet observed in a 2013 lecture, “[n]ot only do … investment tribunals… refer to the jurisprudence of the World Court, but they show a particular deference to it.”

There is some evidence, discussed below, to suggest that ISDS tribunals have referred to ICJ jurisprudence with increased frequency in recent years. Moreover, as ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf highlighted in his October 2018 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the Court today is particularly busy. There may thus be even more opportunities for jurisprudential cross-pollination in the near future. Now is an opportune time to consider why, when, and how investor-State tribunals refer to ICJ jurisprudence.

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The Right to Development and Archaic Dichotomies in UNCITRAL ISDS Reforms

Published on May 2, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s Note:  This is the concluding post in this week’s series of several posts critically examining the UNCITRAL ISDS reform process, which held its latest Working Group III meetings in New York on April 2019.  On Monday we featured the introduction from UNCITRAL Academic Forum Chair Malcolm Langford and our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts, who summarized key points of contention raised by States as to the narrower procedural reforms to ISDS as the mandate of UNCITRAL Working Group III.  Posts on Tuesday (see here and here) from our Contributing Editor Anthea Roberts and her co-author Taylor St. John addressed geopolitical and ideological issues that affect ISDS reforms. On Wednesday, we featured a response post on Costs, from Susan Franck, Academic Forum Member and author of the new 2019 book, Arbitration Costs: Myths and Realities in Investment Treaty Arbitration (OUP, 2019).  EJIL:Talk! Editor Diane Desierto concludes this series, with observations drawn from her own public work today in Geneva, where she is serving as Resource Expert on Institutional Compliance with the Right to Development at the 20th Intergovernmental Working Group Session on the Right to Development, organized by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It would not have escaped our scrutiny from this week’s excellent posts by Malcolm Langford, Anthea Roberts, Taylor St. John, and Susan Franck that the UNCITRAL ISDS Reform debates of States are taking place with an occluded (if not opaque) understanding of the supposed position(s) of “developing countries”, or indeed, what their respective needs for reform and flexibility in UNCITRAL ISDS reforms are, as each developing country undertakes its desired reform path.  As my colleagues rightly pointed out this week, one cannot approach “developing countries” with a monolithic understanding (or perceived understanding) of a regional, categorical, or group approach. The World Bank dropped the classification of “developing countries” in 2016, given the lack of agreement over the definition of this classification and the deep geographic, topographic, economic, and political diversity even within ‘developing country’ groupings themselves. It is thus entirely obsolete, in today’s international economic system, to even keep assuming that the G77 Non-Aligned Movement of the 1970s would have any degree of settled unanimity today among them as to their respective foreign investment interests, all the more so since there are more capital-exporting States within the “Global South” that are themselves heavily investing across and within the “Global South”.

On the one hand, some “developing countries” have a disproportionately outsized titanic impact on global investment, especially China, which now singularly dominates the writing of the future of the terms of global infrastructure investment through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s leading role in global infrastructure investment was on full display at the 2nd Belt and Road Initiative International Forum in Beijing last week, attended by most world leaders, notwithstanding concerns about the new “colonization” seemingly emerging from BRI projects whose terms, as described recently in The Financial Times, are often bilaterally negotiated within an opaque “mish-mash” of   debt-based infrastructure projects affecting about 62% of the world’s population but which still remain non-transparent to all investment affected stakeholders. On the other hand, some ‘developing countries’, such as low-lying island States comprising around 37 States and around 50 million people, face raging existential issues from the climate change onslaught, and continue to face investment treaty claims as respondent host States (e.g. Mauritius has 3 pending, Cabo Verde has 1 pending, Dominican Republic has 6, Barbados has 1, Guyana has 1, Trinidad and Tobago among many others in this UNCTAD list), while the low-lying island States remain just as beholden to take an ISDS system still largely being written by other States contributing to the very phenomenon causing their impending extinction.  

We do not hear much about the economic, political, structural, resource, fiscal, and negotiating power inequalities and asymmetries between and among the “Global South” of “developing countries” in the UNCITRAL ISDS reform debates.  The focus has been on identifying what “developing countries” supposedly think or prefer, rather than taking each State – at whatever stage of development – as they are in evaluating the impacts of the actual distributional decisions they are making today in the ISDS reform process, and particularly whether these decisions are consistent with their commitments to the right to development (and the full range of human rights capabilities encompassed by this right).  Leaving it to States to do this kind of analysis through their respective investment treaty programs, in my view, does not solve any collective action problems arising from the globalization of our ISDS system. Neither does it significantly advance peoples’ right to development when we allocate ISDS reform into ‘procedural’ (for UNCITRAL) and ‘substantive’ (for States in their respective individual investment treaty programs), or characterize individualized State preferences for investment dispute decision-making in shorthand as ‘the West and the Rest’.  The rigor demanded of us in our responsibility to realize the right to development should be an occasion for pause in our use of, and reliance on, all these constructs and dichotomies.

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

Published on May 1, 2019        Author: 
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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.  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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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…

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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…

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Life Without the WTO – Part II: Looking to the Everyday

Published on April 26, 2019        Author: 
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Editors’ Note: This is the second post of a two part series by EJIL:Talk Contributing Editor Michael Fakhri. Part I can be found here.

In this second post I want to provide two examples of how life might look like without the WTO. One could do this in a myriad of ways and my purpose is to encourage more thinking along these terms and not to define that debate (well, not yet at least). Let’s see what the world looks like when we highlight the everyday practices of procuring food and doing business:

If a central tenet of the WTO is trade liberalization, the Agreement of Agriculture has always been a failure no matter what your definition of liberalization is. Developing countries had, either through the coercion of IMF structural adjustment programs or unilaterally with the aid of World Bank programs, already implemented a small revolution and liberalized their agricultural sectors before 1994. By the late 1980s, they were export-oriented and did little to protect (i.e. support) domestic agricultural production. So, developing countries did not need the WTO to liberalize their agricultural markets.

Instead, the Agreement of Agriculture, took what was an exception under GATT, and turned it into the norm through things like the Green Box (defined in Annex 2 of the Agriculture Agreement). The most popular way that rich countries made exceptions within GATT for their agricultural policy was under GATT Article XII which allowed for quantitative restrictions to be temporarily employed in order to avoid a fiscal crisis caused by a serious balance of payment deficit. In 1955, this temporary exception became the permanent rule when a very generous waiver was granted to the US (BISD 3S/34-5) and a more conditional ‘Hard Core Waiver’ (BISD 3S/39) for the rest of the world but which primarily favored the then EEC. The result was that the GATT now granted countries permission to impose quantitative restrictions for trade in agriculture. The waivers became the rule and were in effect until 1994. With the WTO’s Agreement of Agriculture, the world’s largest markets continued to be closed off to developing countries. Read the rest of this entry…

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Life Without the WTO – Part I: Stop all this Crisis-Talk

Published on April 25, 2019        Author: 
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Editors’ Note: This is the first part of two posts by EJIL:Talk! Contributing Editor Michael Fakhri.

We hear a lot today about the WTO being in crisis. Some people have focused on institutional changes are imagining life without the DSU if it is not reformed. Others are proposing that the WTO consider life without the US. I think, however, we’re at a moment when it’s worth imagining life without the WTO (or at least radically reimagining the WTO). It is actually not too difficult a task if you look at one place the WTO should not have gotten into in the first place – agriculture – and one place where people conduct cross-border business and the WTO is nowhere in sight – the informal economy. I’ll address those in my second blog post.

But first, all this new talk of a WTO crisis is overblown. The WTO was born into a crisis. In light of the Marrakesh Agreement’s 25th birthday this month, it is worth recounting some living memory surrounding the WTO. In the final years of the Uruguay round, farmers in India argued with each other in the streets and in the newspapers over whether they would benefit from a freer market. Environmentalists around the world re-energized their protest efforts having learned some lessons in trade law from the GATT Tuna-Dolphin cases. And labor unions worried about a regulatory race to the bottom. The food sovereignty movement was galvanized by the advent of the WTO and continues strong to this day. Read the rest of this entry…

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The WTO Panel Ruling on the National Security Exception: Has the Panel ‘Cut’ the Baby in Half?

Published on April 12, 2019        Author: 
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Recently, media attention has been captured by the unravelling trade war between the declining western hegemon and the rising eastern mega-power with other discussions, such as the reform of the WTO dispute settlement system, reflecting the points of the growing divergence between the two.

Against this backdrop, the  Russia – Traffic in Transit (DS 512) dispute between Ukraine and the Russian Federation would not have attracted attention if not for one tiny detail: the Russian Federation invoked the national security exception contained in Art. XXI of the GATT. Pandora’s Box has been opened. The WTO panel found itself in a tricky situation. Amidst the severe crisis, which threatens the very existence of the WTO dispute settlement system, the panel entered murky legal terrain – adjudication of the trade measures related to national security. The national security clause had never been interpreted before – for good reason.

This post is an attempt to briefly reflect upon the panel’s ruling on the contentious issue of the national security exception. I begin by outlining the historical context of the recent transit dispute. The post then summarizes the legal claims brought by Ukraine and the justifications raised by the Russian Federation. Subsequently, the findings of the panel are discussed. The conclusion delves into the potential implications of the present decision.

In a number of the ongoing trade disputes, the parties have expressed their desire to rely upon the national security exception. The present ruling will be likely celebrated by the WTO Members that have brought legal claims against the additional steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the United States (Section 232 tariffs). In a nutshell, if the panel’s ruling is not appealed, especially in the part pertinent to the objective review of the subparagraphs (i)-(iii) of Article XXI, then the United States national security justification in those disputes would not stand the scrutiny.

It appears, though, that the panel’s findings do not shed much light on how to resolve the unfolding trade conflict between Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (DS526, DS567 and DS576) The tension between these countries has a more political flavour and is not easily regarded a mere protectionism under the guise of national security. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Reviewability of the Security Exception in GATT Article XXI in Russia – Traffic in Transit: Implications for South China Sea Investment Disputes in GATT Article XXI-type Clauses in ASEAN Regional Investment Treaties

Published on April 9, 2019        Author: 
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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.

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