The Media Spotlight on Investor-State Dispute Settlement Just Got a Lot Brighter

by Julian Ku

Buzzfeed’s Chris Hamby is out today with the first installment of a promised four-part investigative report into the system of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).  Like all such reports, it needs a spectacular headline and summary to draw clicks, and this one’s a doozy:

The Court That Rules the World

A parallel legal universe, open only to corporations and largely invisible to everyone else, helps executives convicted of crimes escape punishment.

The article itself is much more fair and thorough than this ridiculous headline teaser suggests.  It contains lots of original reporting on three ISDS cases involving Egypt, El Salvador, and Indonesia where Hamby says actual or threatened ISDS actions allowed corporate executives to escape criminal punishment.

I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of Hamby’s reporting on these cases. But I do have two initial somewhat critical reactions:

  • ISDS does give foreign investors leverage with host nations like Egypt or El Salvador that they wouldn’t otherwise have.  But I think Hamby overstates the amount of leverage a real or threatened ISDS claim creates.  Foreign governments don’t immediately comply with all ISDS awards and collecting judgments against foreign sovereigns, even weak ones like Egypt or El Salvador, is no easy task given those states’ sovereign immunity legal defenses and the difficulty of seizing state-owned assets.  Moreover, research shows that ISDS shows that states win more often than investors do, or they at least prevail as often as investors do. (See Footnote 3 to this letter defending ISDS as well as this EU Commission report).  ISDS may have allowed some foreign investors to unjustly avoid liability for their actions, but it is hard to know (and Hamby’s article cannot prove) that such cases represent a majority, or even a meaningful percentage, of overall ISDS actions.
  •  I don’t have a problem with Hamby reporting on these cases where it seems ISDS has been abused.  But I think it is important to keep the larger context of ISDS in mind.  What would be the impact of not having ISDS at all?  Would it make cross-border investment less common?  A lot less common?  Would the elimination of ISDS result in more corruption as foreign investors feel a need to pay protection money to host countries rather than resort to legal means?  Would the elimination of ISDS result in simply more cross-border investment among “rich” countries with well-developed domestic legal systems such as the US and Europe to the exclusion of “poor” countries with developing legal systems?  In other words, ISDS may be bad in many ways, and much abused (although I doubt the abuse is as common as Hamby intimates), but would eliminating ISDS be worse?

I am not an uncritical cheerleader for ISDS. I am doubtful, for instance, that ISDS adds much to the (now pretty much dead) proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US.  And I have questioned the constitutionality under US law of the ICSID Convention’s requirement of automatic enforcement of ISDS awards.   But I do feel ISDS critics should eventually have to answer the question: If not ISDS, then what? And will that non-ISDS future be better or worse? Hopefully, one of Hamby’s remaining three parts will address this important policy issue.

http://opiniojuris.org/2016/08/29/the-media-lens-on-investor-state-dispute-settlement-just-got-a-lot-brighter/

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