Does Investor-State Arbitration “Weaken the Rule of Law”? Judith Resnik and Larry Tribe Seem to Think So
I have not been surprised by the swelling opposition in the U.S. (mostly from the progressive left) against proposed trade agreements with Pacific and European nations (TPP and TTIP). But I am mildly surprised by the way in which TPP and TTIP opponents have zeroed in on the inclusion of investor-state arbitration mechanisms as a rallying point for their opposition. Not only has former Harvard lawprof (and now U.S. Senator) Elizabeth Warren come out against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement (or ISDS), but yesterday, Yale law prof Judith Resnik and Harvard lawprof Lawrence Tribe, along with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and a few others released a letter outlining their concerns with (really, their opposition to) ISDS. This letter is much more sophisticated and persuasive than an earlier lawprof letter Roger criticized here. Indeed, its critique is far broader and echoes “sovereigntist” critiques that many on the political right have often applied to international tribunals. Here is one snippet of their argument.
ISDS weakens the rule of law by removing the procedural protections of the legal system and using a system of adjudication with limited accountability and review. It is antithetical to the fair, public, and effective legal system that all Americans expect and deserve.
The letter valorizes U.S. courts and Article III judges, as well as the importance of democracy, and contrasts those institutions and values with the secretive ISDS process. The main complaint, which is quite true, is that ISDS gives foreign investors a “separate legal system” to which others, including US citizens and corporations, cannot access. ISDS is not subject to any serious review by either courts or other arbitral tribunals.
None of the statements in the letter are inaccurate or incorrect. But they do leave out the basic assumption and rationale behind ISDS provisions. Foreign investors are presumed to be more likely to face disadvantages in a foreign legal system, which is why they are presumed to need “extra” protections from ISDS. I think the rationale for ISDS is weaker for trade agreements between the US and Europe or the US and other developed industrialized countries. But it is still probably true that there is a greater risk of discrimination against foreigners from a local legal system than against local companies.
I am not convinced of the necessity of ISDS in these trade agreements, but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to include them either. I do recognize that these systems of dispute settlement do create non-trivial tensions with the domestic legal systems of member countries. In other contexts (law of the sea, ICJ/death penalty, etc), raising concerns about these tensions has been associated with the political right. So it is interesting to see progressives borrow sovereigntist arguments in their campaign against ISDS.