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Crimea Investment Disputes: are jurisdictional hurdles being overcome too easily?

Published on May 9, 2018        Author: 
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In February-March 2014, Crimea experienced what is here neutrally referred to as a ‘change of effective sovereign’ (as conceded by Ukraine itself). Subsequent events have given rise to at least nine investment claims by Ukrainian nationals against Russia in connection with their investments in Crimea made prior to the ‘change of effective sovereign’. Substantively, all cases pivot on alleged violations of the expropriation and FET (fair & equitable treatment) clauses of the 1998 Russia-Ukraine BIT. Before getting there, however, a series of jurisdictional hurdles need to be overcome. Firstly, whether the scope of the BIT covers also de facto (as opposed to de jure) territory. Thus, whether under the BIT, Crimea may be understood as Russian territory. Secondly, the BIT’s temporal and personal ambit of application. That is to say, whether Ukrainian nationals and their businesses existing in Crimea prior to the ‘change of effective sovereign’ may qualify, respectively, as foreign Ukrainian investors and investments in Russia. It is doubtful that these questions which, are inevitably intertwined with the public international issue of the legality of the ‘change of sovereign’, can be satisfactorily answered through ‘effective interpretations’ and/or drawing analogies from human rights law. The scope and rationale of investment law differs from that of the latter; the promotion and protection of bilateral business is pursued for the benefit of economic growth, while the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of persons is undertaken for the good of human kind.  In fact, it is reflected in the standard dispute settlement mechanism envisaged i.e. private ad hoc arbitration v standing international court.

Jurisdictional decisions in five proceedings have recently been rendered. To date, none of these have been made public. Nevertheless, important passages of their reasoning have been uncovered by trusted sources. These allow for a preliminary review of the tribunals’ assessment of the key legal issues involved. Read the rest of this entry…

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China leans in on international adjudication: Why Beijing’s answer to defeat will be more forceful engagement

Published on May 2, 2018        Author: 
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This year China might suffer the third in a string of stinging defeats at international tribunals that would then cover trade, investment, and law of the sea matters. Contrary to persistent expectations in some policy circles, China’s leaders will not opt for withdrawal. They have resolved to make existing mechanisms work for China, and shape global governance by doubling down on engagement. In line with different degrees of Chinese integration into these systems, Beijing will respond by ratcheting up litigation (trade), upgrading bilateral treaties (investment), and pushing for favourable state practice through diplomacy (law of the sea). The international community will have to deal with a newly powerful legal actor who is very much on the offense.

Failure and Frustration

In two ways, trade law could this year deliver the third bombshell setback in China’s recent engagement with international adjudication. Firstly, there is China’s soon to be decided WTO complaint against the EU’s retention of a distinct (although modified) antidumping methodology for (states like) China. A similar case against the United States is in the consultation stage. Beijing had expected that its Accession Protocol would deliver automatic ‘market economy status’ including more favourable antidumping treatment 15 years after it joined the WTO.

Secondly, a major trade law standoff is unfolding between China and the US, involving the mutual adoption of tariffs and filing of WTO complaints, which could come to a head this year. The US filed a complaint on China’s protection of intellectual property (IP) rights alleging TRIPS Agreement violations. At the same time, the US Trade Representative (USTR) proposed tariffs following a Section 301 US Trade Act of 1974 investigation into Chinese IP practices. Beijing already responded with a WTO complaintalleging that such tariffs would violate the GATT, and its own list of proposed tariffs. Less crucially, China initiated another case alleging GATT and Safeguards Agreement violations through US tariffs on steel and aluminium products.

Previously, giant life insurer Ping An became the first Chinese company to lose an investment arbitration, when its $1 billion claim against Belgium over the Fortisbank nationalization was rejected in 2015. A year later, China suffered an almost total defeat against the Philippinesin an Annex VII UNCLOS law of the sea arbitration on South China Sea issues in July 2016.

Such setbacks trigger angry reactions in China against allegedly biased international institutions that might never give China a fair shake. Many commentators decried China’s supposed second-class membership in the WTO, when the EU decided against granting market economy status, while recent US trade actions are termed severe violations and ‘typical of unilateralism and trade protectionism’ by the Chinese government. Chinese officials were stunned when the investor in Ping Anlost over the ‘technicality’ of whether to rely on the older or the more recent bilateral investment treaty (BIT) between China and Belgium. Following the South China Sea case, it was mooted that Beijing could ‘denounce’ the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to be safe from other states’ attempts to ‘exploit’ the system ‘for political reasons’.

Doubling Down

Yet China is not going to withdraw, and Western governments, as guardians of the current system, will be surprised by how forcefully it will instead lean in to shape existing legal regimes. Tools will differ, but trade litigation, investment treaty making and law of the sea diplomacy to influence state practice serve the same purpose: align the rules further with China’s interests.

This effort is part of the more assertive foreign policy outlined by China’s president Xi Jinping, who just consolidated his power at the First Session of the 13th National People’s Congress. In a major shift, Xi has declared that China will no longer just participate in the international system, but provide ‘guidance’ towards a ‘new international order’. A recent treatise in the People’s Daily confirmed the ambition to seize the ‘historic opportunity’ to shape a new order while US policies under President Trump leave a leadership vacuum.

An underestimated driver of such strategic decisions is a policy elite of Chinese international lawyers who overwhelmingly favour playing offense. Prominent academics and legal counsels to the Chinese leadership have argued that with WTO dispute resolution, just showing up is half the battle. They have called for China to develop the litigious ‘mind set’ and investment treaty framework to go with its new status as major global investor. Lastly, they want China to go around the South China Sea award and influence the law of the sea by shaping state practice through diplomacy.

Bespoke Strategies

After China was refused ‘market economy status’, its Ministry of Commerce immediately struck back at the EU with a complaint at the WTO. Should it now lose the case, its appeal will already be prepared, as will be fresh complaints tackling the broader issue from different angles. At the same time, Beijing encourages Chinese companies to more proactively ‘prove’ to regulatory agencies abroad that they operate under market conditions, and contest adverse decisions at local courts.

Similarly, the Chinese government very quickly responded to recent (partly only proposed) US tariffs, with two fresh complaints. The current overall dispute with Washington will see a Chinese leadership that is more open to negotiated solutions than on antidumping methodology. Should there be any adverse decisions, though, China would again immediately appeal and file further complaints.

Flanking its litigation strategy, China continues massive diplomatic lobbying. Firstly, this serves to gain recognition as a market economy. More than 80 countries have already complied by explicitly providing such recognition, and FTA negotiations in line with theBelt and Road Initiative are to increase that number. President Xi has called for hastened implementation of China’s free trade strategy to strengthen its position in writing global trade rules, after failed Western efforts with TPP and TTIP left the field open.

Secondly, Beijing is actively portraying itself as defender of the WTO trade regime against a protectionist Trump administration onslaught. While many governments share US concerns about IP rights in China, Beijing uses (potential) US tariff implementation without WTO decisions, especially where broadly targeted such as on steel and aluminium, to position itself as the better trade citizen. China’s aim is not only to offset pressure concerning domestic legal changes, but also to shape future coalitions of states in international trade law reform (or rather in blocking reform where existing frameworks suit China).

On investment law, the investor’s defeat in Ping An spurred the Chinese government to quickly improve its investment treaties and seek influence on global investment rules harmonization. Beijing wants to get new investor-friendly treaties in place that include improved transitional clauses, and grant broad access to international arbitration, as well as, quite unusually, appellate bodies. Chinese lawyers argue that such mechanisms may improve legal predictability, but perhaps more importantly they would give the Chinese side another chance in case of defeat.

Wanting to make use of the full arsenal of available measures, the Chinese leadership also acts on the multilateral level. On the path towards a common worldwide investment law system that looks more like the WTO in the trade area, Beijing seeks to set the agenda and touts the ‘Guiding Principles for Global Investment Policymaking’, adopted at the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou, as a first step. The non-binding principles are infused with Chinese wording and interpretations of principles such as legal predictability, transparency, and effective dispute resolution.

Finally, in the third issue area of the law of the sea, after the stunning loss on South China Sea claims, Beijing decided to undermine the award’s authority with a diplomatic push to underline contradictory state practice. Chinese officials aim to prevent the arbitrators’ restrictive interpretations of ‘historic rights’ and ‘island’ status from becoming international customary law. They point out, for example, that the United States and Japan use tiny rocks to make extensive maritime claims, and lobby states worldwide to support China’s interpretation of its islands’ entitlements. Some scholars point out the potential for further UNCLOS implementation agreements(as on deep seabed mining), which could clear up ambiguity in terms favourable to China and override the tribunal’s decisions.

While China may strictly reject compliance with the South China Sea award, it needs UNCLOS to protect its interests and gain influence on maritime governance. Beijing aims to secure a large UNCLOS-sanctioned continental shelf in the East China Sea, based on favourable geography vis-à-vis Japan. It wants Chinese companies to be in a prime position for the coming International Seabed Authority-sanctioned mining bonanza under the high seas worldwide, and it intends to have a seat on the table regarding Arctic governance issues. Indicative of its strategic choice to shape the system from within, China now adopts more UNCLOS-like language for its South China Sea claims and backs away from the ‘Nine-dash Line’.

The Future of China and International Law

So, in a nutshell, what should we expect China to do? Its approach has already evolved considerably. The focus shifted from the international legal order’s ‘hardware’ – joining institutions and equipping them with Chinese judges and staff – to its ‘software’. Now the Chinese leadership wants more influence on the treaties and customary law behind the system. In a parallel process, once it feels confident enough in a particular field, China gradually but inevitably boots up participation at court.

Prominent voices in China, including Prof. Yi Xianhe, member of the Foreign Ministry Consultative Committee on International Law, have argued that China must be a ‘leader country’ on international law, if it is to consolidate economic and political gains. That includes actively engaging with international tribunals. Such statements represent an emerging consensus among Chinese international lawyers that forward-leaning engagement will on balance be a positive for China, and the best protection of its national interests.

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Arbitration Agreement is no Waiver of State Immunity from Jurisdiction for the Purposes of Recognition and Enforcement – Comment on Commercial Court of Moscow’s decision in Tatneft v Ukraine

Published on July 17, 2017        Author: 
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In April 2017, the Russia-based PJSC Tatneft initiated against Ukraine the process of recognition and enforcement in Russia of an arbitral award issued in the PCA investment arbitration OAO Tatneft v Ukraine under the UNCITRAL Rules and the Russia-Ukraine BIT. This June, the Commercial Court for the City of Moscow (the court of first instance, hereinafter – “the Court” or “the Russian Court”) dismissed Tatneft’s recognition and enforcement application, inter alia, sustaining Ukraine’s plea of immunity from jurisdiction [see А40-67511/2017 (in Russian)]. This post comments on the part of the Court’s judgment concerning Ukraine’s immunity from jurisdiction.

The Positions of the Parties and the Judgment

Insofar as it is possible to ascertain the crux of the parties’ submissions from the text of the judgment, Ukraine raised two objections to jurisdiction. The first objection was based on Ukraine’s immunity from jurisdiction in the recognition and enforcement proceedings, and the second on the Russian courts’ lack of effective jurisdiction to try the claim due to the absence of Ukraine’s commercial assets in the territory of Russia. This note will concern itself only with the first of the two objections. Read the rest of this entry…

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The Shifting Landscape of Investor-State Arbitration: Loyalists, Reformists, Revolutionaries and Undecideds

Published on June 15, 2017        Author: 
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The investor-state arbitration landscape is shifting under our feet. The utility and legitimacy of traditional investor-state arbitration have come under fire, but states have not converged on a viable alternative. In simplified terms, three main camps are developing, which I call the “loyalist,” “reformist,” and “revolutionary” camps. The vast majority of states, however, are yet to take a public position on whether and, if so, how to reform investor-state dispute settlement. These “undecided” states are not a homogenous group, nor are they necessarily passive. Many states within this group are actively watching these developments and debating the various reform proposals.

One of the big strategic questions for the investment treaty system in the next few years will be whether the loyalists, reformists or revolutionaries will be able to attract a critical number of the undecideds to their cause in order to create a reasonable measure of convergence on a particular approach. The alternative is that the undecideds will split among the existing camps and/or develop their own distinct or hybrid positions. Another question is whether any members of the existing camps will shift their alliances. It is unclear how this will ultimately play out. What is clear, however, is that the tide appears to be turning against the traditional model of investor-state arbitration as it has few – if any – real supporters among states.

Loyalists, Reformists and Revolutionaries Read the rest of this entry…

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Self-Appointment in International Arbitration

Published on June 7, 2017        Author: 
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At first glance, paragraph 14 of the UNCLOS Annex VII tribunal’s Order on Provisional Measures in Enrica Lexie (Italy v. India) appears quite mundane. It states in relevant part that “on 30 September 2015, the President of ITLOS appointed … H.E. Judge Vladimir Golitsyn as arbitrator and President of the Arbitral Tribunal” (para. 14). It becomes much more interesting, however, when one realizes that on 30 September 2015, the President of ITLOS was none other than Judge Golitsyn himself.

A similar phenomenon appears to have occurred in another high-profile UNCLOS Annex VII arbitration: Ukraine v. Russia. On 23 December 2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine revealed that Judge Boualem Bouguetaia would be a member of the tribunal, “express[ing] its gratitude to the Vice-President of [ITLOS] for rapid formation of the tribunal”. The Ministry failed to note, however, that on 23 December 2016 the Vice-President of ITLOS was none other than Judge Bouguetaia himself.

If it is true that Judges Golitsyn and Bouguetaia appointed themselves to the tribunals, they should not necessarily be reprimanded. After all, these self-appointments would be in accordance with Annex VII of UNCLOS. Article 3 of Annex VII provides that the parties shall appoint three of the five members of the tribunal by agreement, but if they are unable to agree, the appointments shall be made by the President of ITLOS or, if he or she is a national of one of the parties to the dispute, the next most senior member of ITLOS. In Enrica Lexie, this power fell on President Golitsyn. And in Ukraine v. Russia, since President Golitsyn is a national of Russia, this power fell on Vice-President Bouguetaia. Nothing in Article 3 prohibits the appointing authority from appointing him or herself to the arbitral tribunal.

Three Concerns

Nevertheless, an appointing authority’s self-appointment as an arbitrator, as a general matter in international arbitration, is subject to three potential concerns. Read the rest of this entry…

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Would a Multilateral Investment Court be Biased? Shifting to a treaty party framework of analysis

Published on April 28, 2017        Author: 
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I have recently been pondering a common complaint voiced against the EU and Canada’s proposal for a multilateral investment court, which is that it would be biased against investors because all of the judges would be selected by states (see, for example, the ABA’s Report here and Judge Schwebel’s speech here). In my view, this criticism is misguided because it confuses the role of states as disputing parties and as treaty parties. States have dual roles in the investment treaty system: they are treaty parties with a legitimate interest in the interpretation and application of their treaties and they are disputing parties with a desire to avoid liability in particular cases. When it comes to questions of institutional design, I think that we need to adopt a treaty party framework of analysis, not a disputing party one.

In a particular dispute, an investor can appoint one arbitrator and a state can appoint another. Once a case is filed, it is hardly surprising that both disputing parties would seek to appoint arbitrators who are broadly sympathetic to their positions. This tends to generate polarization within the field with arbitrators often being thought of (whether accurately or not) as having either a “pro-investor” or a “pro-state” bias. This division helps to explain why, when judged from the perspective of the dispute resolution framework, investors and members of the arbitral community have raised concerns that having tribunals selected by states only would lead to biased results. This is so even though neither the claimant investor nor the respondent state would appoint the particular tribunal members tasked with hearing the case.

When it comes to institutional design, however, we need to shift our focus from the disputing party framework to the treaty party framework. Read the rest of this entry…

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The South China Sea moves to the Indian Ocean: Conflicting Claims Over the Tromelin Islet and its Maritime Entitlements

Published on February 8, 2017        Author: 
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The small, isolated, inhospitable (and inhabited) island of Tromelin, located in the Indian Ocean north of Mauritius and the French Reunion island, and east of Madagascar (see map), has been the subject of passionate debate in recent weeks in France, both in the media (here and here) and within the Parliament (transcript of the debate before the French National Assembly).

Tromelin is a flat and small feature, about 1,700 metres long and 700 metres wide, with an area of about 80 hectares (200 acres). Its flora is limited, while the site is known to host significant numbers of seabirds. There is no harbour nor anchorages on the island, but a 1,200-metre airstrip, and there appears to be no continuous human presence.

Tromelin was discovered by a French navigator in 1722, and France today claims sovereignty over it by virtue of historical title (discovery of terra nullius) dating back to that date. The islet was the scene of a sad – and little known – episode of history as the place where approximately 60 Malagasy men and women were abandoned for 15 years in the 18th century after a French ship transporting slaves eschewed on the island. Most of the slaves died within a few months. The survivors were finally rescued in 1776, when Bernard Boudin de Tromelin, captain of the French warship La Dauphine, visited the island and discovered seven women and an eight-month-old child. Captain Tromelin also raised a French flag on the island – and his name was given to it.

French possession of Tromelin was interrupted by Britain which took control of the island in 1810. Then in 1954, the British gave their consent to France’s effective control over Tromelin. But sovereignty over Tromelin is still disputed, and the island has been claimed by the newly independent Mauritius since 1976, and reportedly also by Madagascar and the Seychelles (see V. Prescott, ‘Indian Ocean Boundaries’ at 3462-63). The controversy in France over Tromelin has led to the postponing of the ratification by the Parliament of a framework agreement entered into by France and Mauritius in June 2010, providing for joint economic, scientific and environmental management (cogestion) of the island and of surrounding maritime areas. Read the rest of this entry…

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After Trump: China and Russia move from norm-takers to shapers of the international legal order

Published on November 10, 2016        Author: 
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The Western media hardly reported that on Tuesday 8th November 2016, the Chinese Premier, LI Keqiang, visited Russia. Maybe the date of the visit (the day of the de facto election of the US President) was chosen to convey a message. The deepening Chinese-Russian partnership seeks to work towards an alternative to what is perceived by the leaders of those two powers to be a US-dominated world order. It is plausible that an unpredictable, inexperienced, and undiplomatic US President will contribute to a weakening of that order. It is also likely that all recent moves will entail some changes in international law.

Let us recapitulate the latest official statements. On the official English-language website of the Chinese government, the Chinese Premier commented yesterday’s meeting as follows: “China−Russia cooperation is not only beneficial to the two sides, but also to regional and world peace, stability, development, and prosperity.”

A more detailed exposition of this view was offered by Ms FU Ying, the co-chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, and the current vice minister of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China. She gave a speech at a meeting of a Russian intellectual elite-discussion circle (the “Valdai Club”) which was quickly published in China Daily − European Weekly of October 28 – November 3, 2016, entitled “Major Countries Need to Build Trust”.

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The Doctrine of Indispensable Issues: Mauritius v. United Kingdom, Philippines v. China, Ukraine v. Russia, and Beyond

Published on October 14, 2016        Author: 
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On 14 September 2016, Ukraine instituted proceedings against Russia under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Ukraine is requesting that an UNCLOS tribunal declare, inter alia, that Russia has violated the Convention by interfering with Ukraine’s rights in maritime zones adjacent to Crimea.

At first, there appears to be no jurisdictional problem. Aside from the exceptions laid out in Part XV of UNCLOS, the tribunal has jurisdiction over “any dispute concerning the interpretation or application of [the] Convention” (Art. 288(1) UNCLOS), which would permit a declaration that Russia has violated the Convention. Nevertheless, such a declaration would necessarily require a preliminary determination that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea (under the “land dominates the sea” principle), and the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over territorial sovereignty disputes. Therefore, the tribunal must decide whether it may still exercise jurisdiction over the dispute concerning Russia’s violation of the Convention.

Ukraine v. Russia presents what one may call the “implicated issue problem.” Generally speaking, the implicated issue problem arises when an international court or tribunal has jurisdiction over a dispute, but the exercise of such jurisdiction would implicate an issue over which the court or tribunal does not have jurisdiction ratione materiae. The court or tribunal must therefore determine whether it may still exercise jurisdiction over the dispute. Read the rest of this entry…

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Philippines v China: first thoughts on the Award in the South China Seas Case

Published on July 12, 2016        Author: 
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Any international lawyer looking at a news site in the last few hours will have seen that the final award has been handed down at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines v China dispute brought under the UN Convention on the Law Sea Annex VII procedure. The arbitral tribunal’s decision is simply historic. While Philippines has lost on a number of smaller points, the scale of its win overall is much greater than most commentators were expecting.

What follows is a very preliminary comment – and I stress that faced with a 500 page decision I may well revise my views later. It is also more in the nature of an explainer than a deep dive on any of the many legal questions already highlighted below. (This is also an excessively long post, for which I apologise.) However, on a first, quite brief, examination the tribunal has attempted to be meticulously fair to China and has applied the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea strictly and thoroughly. It has delivered a result which was, by and large, predictable.

James Kraska of the US Naval College has summarised the key holdings as:

  • the nine dash line has no basis in law,
  • there are no islands in the disputed area within the meaning of Article 123, UNCLOS,
  • China has interfered in the Philippines’ EEZ; and
  • China’s actions have aggravated the dispute.

I would add to this list three matters. First, the Tribunal has concluded that Mischief Reef is a low tide elevation over which no State can claim sovereignty or possession. This means it is simply a maritime feature within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Chinese island-building activities there are thus not merely without legal effect but are in violation of the sovereign rights of the Philippines.

Second, it has found that China has breached various obligations under UNCLOS regarding the protection and preservation of the marine environment by having caused severe and irreparable harm to coral reef ecosystems in its construction of artificial islands in the South China Seas.

Third, international tribunals normally bend over backwards to avoid findings of bad faith against a state. That is, one cannot act in bad faith without violating some other substantive right. So most tribunals consider it sufficient to stop at determining that a right or duty has been violated. This tribunal has found China violated Article 300 of UNCLOS: the duty to act in good faith. This is an extraordinary rebuke and a clear indication that the law of the sea dispute resolution system will not be cowed by the posturing of the superpower. As a matter of principle, it takes a principled stand on the supremacy of the rule of law. As a matter of pragmatism, it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that angering China over this dispute could jeopardise the stability of the law of the sea system.
Read the rest of this entry…

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