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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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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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Lack of Consistency and Coherence in the Interpretation of Legal Issues

Published on April 5, 2019        Author: , and
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Editors’ Note:  This is the last post in our ongoing series of posts (see introduction here, first post on costs here, second post on duration of proceedings here, third post on the diversity deficit in investment arbitration here, fourth post on the impartiality and independence of arbitrators here, fifth post on an empirical assessment of ISDS here) , sixth post on incorrectness of ISDS decisions here) authored by individual members of the Academic Forum of the UNCITRAL Working Group III (UN WG III) on Investor-State Dispute Settlement Reform, in parallel with the ongoing UN WG III sessions taking place this week in New York.  The series features summaries of more detailed concept papers prepared by various working groups of the Academic Forum.  This post summarizes a more detailed concept paper prepared by members of Academic Forum Working Group 3.

This post is the product of the work of the UNCITRAL Academic Forum’s (own) “Working Group 3” whose focus is on the lack of consistency and coherence in the interpretation of legal issues. Lack of consistency has been identified in UNCITRAL Working Group III (WGIII)as one of the concerns with regard to the current system of investor State dispute resolution.

In the view of WGIII, the most glaring cases of unjustifiable inconsistency are cases “where the same investment treaty standard or same rule of customary international law was interpreted differently in the absence of justifiable ground for the distinction” (UN Doc No A/CN.9/935 (14 May 2018), para. 21). Other apparent inconsistencies may be wholly justifiable, where tribunals are interpreting similar, but materially different treaty texts – or interpreting the same treaty in relation to materially different facts. Usually, however, inconsistencies in the case-law fall somewhere between these poles. Indeed, there may be problematic inconsistencies where tribunals make too much of formal differences in treaty texts, where different interpretations may nevertheless prove materially unjustifiable. Not every difference in drafting across thousands of investment treaties necessarily signals a divergent meaning.

Rather than focus on only the glaring cases, we have sought to push further into analyzing the incidents, causes, and varied harms produced by discrete inconsistencies in the ISDS case law. In approaching our task, we have focused on three discrete issues:(1) the obligation to provide full protectionand security (“FPS”); (2) the treaty / contract relationship; and (3) the scope of the most-favoured-nation (“MFN”) clause.  In determining whether there are unjustifiable inconsistencies with respect to these issues, we have explored the following questions: (a) what is the inconsistency?; (b) what is the cause of that inconsistency?; (c) what is the harm being caused by this inconsistency?; and (d) what is the solution for this inconsistency (if one can be identified)?

We have found that a fruitful distinction can be drawn between two kinds of unjustifiable inconsistencies: inconsistent interpretations of basic substantive obligations (e.g. FPS) and inconsistent interpretations of more structural “rules of the game” (e.g. MFN and the treaty / contract issue). The former phenomenon can be problematic, but such inconsistencies are to some extent endemic to any legal system. The life of the law is, everywhere, one of change and development. Moreover, such inconsistencies are relatively manageable. For example, should States worry about inconsistent interpretations of FPS, they can clarify the meaning of such treaty terms through treaty drafting, amendment, and/or joint interpretations. Governments and investors can also, in theory, manage such inconsistencies through private agreement, by contracting for what they consider important.

Unjustifiably inconsistent interpretations of the rules of the game are more problematic, insofar as they create severe uncertainty and unpredictability inthe making of investments and for national regulatory choice. Where there is uncertainty as to whether States and investors can contract around investment treaty rules, efficient private ordering is off the table, leaving price as the best lever to reduce uncertainty. Similarly with MFN, uncertainty about whether such clauses allow importation of substantive treaty rules from treaties with third-parties, procedural rules, or neither, creates severe ex ante uncertainty for all parties about the nature and extent of the regime applicable to the investment. In both cases, uncertainty as to the rules of the game creates harms ex ante and ex post. To the extent that States and investors are aware of these problems, they can lead to bargaining and price inefficiencies in the making of investments. To the extent they are unaware, such inconsistencies can lead to unfair and unjustifiable surprise ex post.

For the purposes of this short blog post, we draw out this distinction by sketching our analyses of inconsistencies in the case law on FPS, treaty / contract, and MFN.  

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Responding to Incorrect ISDS Decision-Making: Policy Options

Published on April 5, 2019        Author: 
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Editors’ Note:  This is the latest post in our ongoing series of posts (see introduction here, first post on costs here, second post on duration of proceedings here, third post on the diversity deficit in investment arbitration here, fourth post on the impartiality and independence of arbitrators here, fifth post on an empirical assessment of ISDS here) authored by individual members of the Academic Forum of the UNCITRAL Working Group III (UN WG III) on Investor-State Dispute Settlement Reform, in parallel with the ongoing UN WG III sessions taking place this week in New York.  The series features summaries of more detailed concept papers prepared by various working groups of the Academic Forum.  This post summarizes a more detailed concept paper prepared by members of Academic Forum Working Group 4 (members Daniel Behn, Chi Manjiao, Eric De Brabandere, Anna De Luca, Jaemin Lee, Martins Paparinskis, Catharine Titi).

In UNCITRAL Working Group IIIdiscussions, concerns have been raised about the consistency, as well as the correctness, of investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) decisions. Consistency and correctness are distinct concepts: inconsistent ISDS decisions can be correct, and consistent ISDS decisions can be incorrect. Developing potential policy responses to incorrect ISDS decision-making first requires an understanding of how achieving correctness requires more than achieving consistency.

Working Group Four of the Academic Forum on ISDS has prepared a report analyzing the “correctness” of ISDS decision-making. That analysis balances two competing considerations. First, the legal reasoning and outcomes of many ISDS decisions have faced significant criticism from a range of actors – including States, organizations, and scholars– which has raised questions of correctness and, more generally, the substantive legitimacy of the ISDS regime. Second, criticism of particular ISDS decisions, even when widespread and intense, does not necessarily establish the incorrectness of those decisions, due to a number of factors, including how investment treaty obligations are drafted (often in open-textured terms) and interpreted (where, under principles of treaty interpretation reflected in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, factors beyond the ordinary meaning of treaty text must be considered). Particularly with respect to disapproval of ISDS decisions by States, such disapproval might, in some instances, reflect State views that the decisions were incorrectly decided, but in other instances might only reflect a perceived need by States to provide clearer policy guidance to ISDS tribunals. Read the rest of this entry…

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Investment Arbitration and its Discontents: An Empirical Assessment

Published on April 5, 2019        Author: , and
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Editors’ Note:  This is the latest post in our ongoing series of posts (see introduction here, first post on costs here, second post on duration of proceedings here, third post on the diversity deficit in investment arbitration here, fourth post on the impartiality and independence of arbitrators here) individual members of the Academic Forum of the UNCITRAL Working Group III (UN WG III) on Investor-State Dispute Settlement Reform, in parallel with the ongoing UN WG III sessions taking place this week in New York.  The series features summaries of more detailed concept papers prepared by various working groups of the Academic Forum.  This post summarizes a more detailed concept paper prepared by members of Academic Forum Working Group 7.

Introduction

The legitimacy crisis in international investment arbitration continues to generate attempts at systemic reform. The latest act is playing out in the theatre of UNCITRAL, which is wrestling with issues such as excessive costs, outcome bias, and lack of arbitral independence. Yet, not everyone is certain that there is a problem and some participating states have queried the critiques and their empirical basis.

So, what is the state of the evidence? Which critiques deserve serious consideration? These questions are challenging. The fragmented nature of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system and a traditional focus on doctrinal research has hindered systemic analysis. However, the rise of quantitative and qualitative research and new databases allows us to get a better grip on the evidence.

The ISDS Academic Forum working group (No. 7) has reviewed and assessed the available empirical research on the central concerns in the UNCITRAL reform process, which are also the subject of other Academic Forum working group reports. These concerns are: excessive costs, lengthy proceedings, inconsistency, incorrect decisions, arbitral diversity and arbitral independence.

For each issue, we asked two simple but difficult questions: (1) What do we know? and (2) Does it matter? To be sure, there is a recurrent tension in both questions. There is an epistemological challenge: some topics are under-studied or difficult to study. There is also an evaluative challenge. It is not always easy to assess whether a problem really matters – the magnitude of the concern might be unclear or the normative yardstick contested.

We therefore sought to map the state of evidence onto a 2*2 framework, allocating our findings to one of the four quadrants in the figure below. The findings can range from good knowledge of a concrete problem (Quadrant I) to poor knowledge of a doubtful problem (Quadrant IV). In between, we find good knowledge but no problem (Quadrant II) and poor knowledge, but likely problem (Quadrant III).

Figure 1: Empirical perspectives

 

 

 

 

 

                          Problem

                 Knowledge

 

 

 

 

 

   No Problem

 

           I

 

         II

 

 

         III

 

 

         IV

                  Ignorance

  1. Excessive costs of proceedings

The legal costs and damages associated with ISDS have been consistently and frequently studied. Expenses relating to arbitrators and tribunals (‘tribunal fees’) average about 1 million USD, constituting a fraction of the costs that a party will experience in a typical ISDS case. The most significant legal costs are those of counsel (including experts costs). The average costs of counsel for claimants is around 6 million USD and for respondents 5 million USD. Yet, compared to international commercial arbitration or complex domestic court litigation, it is still unclear whether ISDS is uniquely expensive. A typical ISDS case can now can have thousands of pages of documentary evidence. Nonetheless, a process to simplify and improve case management may be beneficial, especially for states and small investors. Enhanced transparency on tribunals’ rationale for the calculation and allocation of costs is also highly desirable, given the lack of a consistent approach.

Losing states will almost always pay compensation (non-monetary damages are rare). The mostrecent study by Behn and Daza of all investment arbitration cases with known amounts awarded up through 1 February 2019 (193 cases) found an average award of 482.5 million USD, with a median of 31 million USD. Are these amounts excessive? While investors are only awarded a little over a third of what they claim on average, these awards can be significant for poorer states. The result is that while tribunal costs are more likely situated in Quadrant II (clear knowledge, not a major problem), higher counsel costs and compensation awards may be closer to Quadrant I (clear knowledge, a problem).

  1. Duration of proceedings

Recent studies on the duration of ISDS proceedings provide a fairly clear picture on the nature of duration and, increasingly, the causes of delay. The average period for both arbitration cases and ICSID annulments is relatively constant at 3.73 and 1.91 years respectively with a slight decrease in the past 5 years. But it is less clear whether there is a problem. The length of proceedings is much shorter than in many other international adjudicative proceedings. One study indicates that it is longer than comparable litigation in some developed state jurisdictions, but not in less developed states. Moreover, recent statistical research suggests that it is the parties themselves – especially states – that are largely responsible for longer proceedings, specifically through requests to bifurcate proceedings or arbitrator challenges. This raises the question of whether delay is (or should be) a major issue for the reform process, perhaps in Quadrant II.

  1. Lack of consistency and coherence

Like doctrinal studies, empirical approaches paint a mixed picture of the consistency of decision-making in ISDS. The conclusions depend on the specific issues studied, the analytical framework, terminology and methodology used. Moreover, we should expect inconsistency for differently-worded treaties or factual situations.

Citation network analysis has provided one lens of the nature and degree of jurisprudentialintegration and thus consistency.For example, Stone Sweet and Grisel trace a dramatic shift in ISDS awards from citations to other international courts to a citation network of prior ISDS awards, suggesting the system is increasingly becoming internally consistent – although not necessarily externally consistent. Moreover, additional studies have found that ICSID and NAFTA tribunals refer to case law more frequently than non-ICSID cases, marking the limits of internal consistency.

Whether inconsistency is a problem depends on the importance one places on legal certainty. Quality decision-making, sociological legitimacy, and dynamic learning might be equally valued. The consistency concern may therefore fall between Quadrant I and II: some knowledge, partly problematic.

  1. Incorrectness of decisions

Making conclusions on incorrectness is challenging for empirical methods as much as it is for doctrinal methods. On one hand, some authors and actors dispute that the ISDS system is biased and point to the even-handedness in final outcomes: see figure 2. Strezhnev finds also thatdeveloping countries lose more frequently because they are more likely to settle otherwise successful cases.

On the other hand, some authors have found that the majority of arbitrators advanced a pro-investor jurisprudence and that developing countries are more likely to lose a case, even when controlling for most democratic governance indicators. Based on case studies, Sattorova also finds that ‘there is a significant current within the international arbitration community that favours the vision of investors as victims of corrupt governments.’ The results are thus mixed, pushing the issue into the ‘known unknowns’ of Quadrant III or IV.

5. Arbitrator diversity

The evidence also indicates that change is sluggish across all aspects of diversity. The ‘prior experience’ norms dominates as parties have strong incentives to (re)appoint experienced arbitrators whose leanings are known. The result is a system that struggles with legitimacy and some studies suggest a more diverse group of arbitrators may partly decide differently. This issue clearly falls in Quadrant I.

6. Arbitrator independence, impartiality and neutrality

Empirical research raises some real questions over the impartiality, neutrality and to some extent independence of arbitrators. A survey experiment conducted on about 250 international arbitrators demonstrates that arbitrators are more likely to choose outcomes favorable to the side appointing them. Moreover, a study on double hatting shows that up to 47% of cases (509 in total) involve at least one arbitrator simultaneously acting elsewhere as legal counsel in another ISDS case.

However, empirical work on independence must proceed with caution. It is frequently difficult to demonstrate with precision the causal effects of alleged bias. However, institutional behavior such as double-hatting and party-based appointment creates at least a perceived bias and legitimate concern, putting the issue between Quadrant I and III: some knowledge and a potential problem.

Conclusions

The survey of the empirical studies in relation to the six issue areas that the UNCITRAL Academic Forum has provided reports revealing an emerging base of evidence for assessing the ISDS process. In some cases, precise statistics can be given on the nature of the regime (legal costs, duration, diversity) and increasingly on the casual factors behind its outcomes (e.g. causes of delay, presence of bias effects on diversity on outcomes). However, the survey also indicates the limitations of an empirical perspective. The main challenges are accessto all relevant data and modelling challenges in explaining outcomes. Moreover, evaluative challenges remain – it was not always clear whether there is a normatively or empirically relevant problem.

Nonetheless, in Figure 3 we have plotted our six conclusions on the epistemologicaland evaluativeaxes. In some instances, there is clear evidence of a problem (diversity, costs) or clear evidence that raises questions as to whether there is a significant problem (duration of proceedings). In other areas, we don’t know enough (inconsistency, independence, and incorrectness) although some evidence points toward a problem.

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