The recent 30 August 2018 Chevron v. Ecuador arbitral award is yet another example of the ongoing asymmetries of protection in the much-beleaguered investor-State dispute settlement system, in which States have generously afforded protections to foreign investors to bring suits directly against States, without creating parallel avenues for affected local communities and/or indigenous peoples to initiate arbitration proceedings directly against either foreign investors or irresponsible States. Despite all our collective best efforts at ongoing reform in UNCITRAL (see updates on Working Group III’s mission on ISDS Reform here), ICSID (see their latest rules amendment project here) and elsewhere, I retain serious doubts as to whether investor-State dispute settlement could ever symmetrically represent the environmental and cultural interests of indigenous peoples and local communities, as effectively as it does investors’ claims to treaty protection and (significantly substantial) compensatory relief. Today, environmental plaintiffs have to navigate between an unwieldy, unpredictable, and quite disparate mix of remedies before domestic (administrative or judicial) courts or tribunals of their home States, potentially some regional courts (such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) or treaty monitoring bodies (whether those specifically created in environmental treaties or human rights treaties), other foreign courts in other countries that permit some environmental tort claims, and possibly, any cases that their home State can bring under diplomatic protection to pursue remedies against foreign nationals or the home States of these foreign nationals. And all these frequently take place in the context of abject differences of power, resources, and capacities between environmental and human rights victims as claimants against either States and/or foreign investors, vis-a-vis foreign investors as claimants or States as respondents. It’s not at all hyperbolic to observe that, with respect to the international environmental system, the deck already appears heavily stacked against environmental plaintiffs at the outset.
The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration presents a crystal example of how what was originally an environmental dispute seeking remediation for one of the worst environmental disasters in history involving oil spillage into 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest – ultimately mutated into the investors’ denial of justice claim in investor-State arbitration. At least, in my view, while the erudite tribunal in this case thoroughly set out the technical legal reasoning in its award on the precise legal issues of the investment treaty breaches alleged, the award itself more broadly demonstrates that we may well be at the point that a dedicated separate international dispute settlement system might already be necessary to properly adjudicate victims’ claims in human rights and environmental disputes. (Notably, other scholars refer to this dispute to highlight the illegitimacy or alleged exces de poivre of arbitral tribunals making assessments and evaluations of the acts or decisions of domestic courts and judicial systems ipso facto – a significant heavily disputed structural matter about the current investor-State dispute settlement system, which is, however, not the law and policy observation I make here.) Some efforts looking beyond the narrow ISDS framework, among others, include projects such as the drafting of the new Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration; the tentative and non-binding 15 September 2016 policy paper of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court exploring the possibility of prosecuting environmental crimes; as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s suite of environmental dispute resolution procedures (interstate arbitration under environmental treaties, mixed dispute resolution under environmental instruments and contracts, specialized environmental rules for arbitration and conciliation). To date, these initiatives have not gone much further beyond their incubation.
The most difficult aspect of the Chevron v. Ecuador case is the fact that the arbitration turned on the issue of Ecuador’s investment treaty breaches over what Chevron alleged were very troubling serious acts of fraud and corruption committed by lawyers and judges to produce a favorable 2011 Ecuador court judgment for the environmental plaintiffs. The fraud and corruption allegations have long since overshadowed the urgency of decades of environmental damage that have largely gone without significant and continuing remedy, alongside ongoing health problems from toxic contamination that have impacted indigenous peoples and local communities for generations. (Note: this pollution disaster originated long before I or generations of current international lawyers were even born.) The Chevron v. Ecuador arbitration succeeded in laying the blame on Ecuador since, for the tribunal, Chevron had already been released from its obligations of remediation under the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements. Unfortunately, the arbitral award does not lay out any detailed environmental analysis to explain why contracts such as the 1995-1998 Settlement Agreements would be sufficient to release private parties from short-term, medium-term, and long-term remediation efforts to restore the ecosystem, and whether such releases were at all consistent with international public policy and Ecuador’s own commitments under international law (especially international environmental treaties and customary international environmental law). Neither did the tribunal explore whether Ecuador alone had the right to conclude the Settlement Agreements on behalf of all the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities, or if Ecuador could indeed effectively and exclusively represent the environmental plaintiffs and affected communities in the investor-State arbitration considering how its government agents exercised oversight (or lack thereof) with respect to the environmental disaster. Because environmental plaintiffs, indigenous peoples, and affected communities continue to be dependent on the host State of the investment to vindicate their claims against foreign investors, the investor-State dispute settlement system simply cannot lend any of these environmental, indigenous, and local plaintiffs any real, much less effective, voice over their fight to restore the Amazon to health. While plaintiffs are mired in multiple litigations and arbitrations around the world to seek accountability from either Chevron and its affiliates or their own government in Ecuador, there is virtually no dedicated State, inter-State, regional, or public-private partnership cooperative efforts to try and achieve environmental restoration in the affected 4,400 square kilometers of the Amazon, as depicted in the map below (source here):