Should the system of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) be reformed? That is the question being considered by the United Nations Commission on Trade Law (UNCITRAL).

ISDS provisions are contained in about 3,000 investment treaties and investment chapters of free trade agreements. The provisions permit a foreign investor in the form of a company or individual to bring a claim directly against a State where the investor believes that its investment is being threatened by an action of the State.

FDI and ISDS

FDI can be a valuable tool to exploit resources and build production facilities while creating jobs and infrastructure, particularly in developing countries. Investment agreements aim to create an enabling environment for foreign investors. Among other things, the provisions protect them against expropriation without adequate compensation and guarantee their ability to freely move assets in and out of the country. Sovereign States, on the other hand, need to govern with a multiplicity of interests in mind and their actions can, inadvertently or deliberately, deprive the foreign investor of an intended benefit. ISDS procedures provide the mechanism by which such disputes are resolved.

The most common procedures are drawn from the world of commercial arbitration, used to determine disputes between two commercial parties. They involve the use of an arbitral tribunal which gives equal standing to the investor and the State and whose decisions are binding.

The majority of developing countries rely on foreign direct investment to foster economic growth and development. The overwhelming majority of defendants in arbitral proceedings are the governments of developing and emerging economies. The outcome of ISDS arbitral tribunals can and do impact theability of governments to develop and implement policy.

Concerns Regarding ISDS

A note by the UNCITRAL Secretariat – “Possible reform of investor-State dispute settlement” and the Report of its Working Group on ISDS summarize expressed concerns regarding ISDS. They include:

  • Inconsistency of arbitral decisions – instances where the host State is sued by different investors on the same issue but with different outcomes from different tribunals;
  • Lengthy duration and extensive cost of ISDS–States that have been sued may not have the resources to adequately defend its policies and actions or to pay arbitral awards;
  • Lack of transparency – States are using public funds and tribunal decisions may be sealed;
  • Lack of an early dismissal mechanism to address unfounded claims;
  • Lack of a mechanism to address counterclaims by respondent States;
  • Heavy reliance on arbitrators from the investor States and who may not understand policy.

Questions at the heart of these concerns address the overall legitimacy of the process. Should a system created to address disputes between two commercial parties be used to resolve policy issues that may impact millions of people? Is it acceptable to exclude domestic investors from the same recourse available to foreign investors?

Proponents of ISDS acknowledge the validity of some of these concerns and say they can be addressed by reforming the current system of ISDS. They also point to the underlying concerns that led to the use of ISDS in the first place – politicization from the use of diplomacy to address dispute and the slow judicial processes in some countries’ domestic legal system.

Concerns are not limited to those expressed by emerging economies. The EU’s submission to the UNCITRAL Working Group highlights systemic issues it believes warrants establishment of a multilateral investment court that would replace the use of arbitral tribunals. A March 2018 ruling of the European Court of Justice concluded that the ISDS clauses in an intra-EU investment treaty were incompatible with EU law.

The Trump Administration has also inserted its perspective on ISDS in the context of the NAFTA re-negotiations. The U.S. Government has consistently expressed its displeasure at being required to abide by the decisions of international panel decisions it finds not to its liking. In August 2017, the Trump Administration floated the idea of opting out of NAFTA ISDS provisions (Chapter 11). Should the US remove itself from the NAFTA ISDS provisions this would be a major departure in US policy and a disappointment for US corporations but a shot in the arm for opponents of ISDS.

Investment Facilitation

UNCITRAL will continue its deliberations. Agrowing consensus appears to be that while ISDS serves a role the system needs to be reformed. Meanwhile, in December 2017,70 WTO members agreed to begin discussions to develop the framework for a Multilateral Investment Facilitation Agreement. Discussions will not address ISDS reform, but the purpose will be to minimize the likelihood of disputes by creating a more transparent, efficient, and predictable environment for facilitating cross-border investment.

To the extent that disputes arise because of tension between development-oriented policies of host States and investor goals, conflicts can best be minimized by incorporating a true development dimension into whatever frameworks are used to manage the FDI inflows into developing countries.