[Tamar Meshel is an SJD Candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.]
In the early 1990s, a trend emerged among international legal scholars and practitioners aimed at reviving the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and, by extension, the use of arbitration to resolve interstate disputes peacefully. The PCA was created during the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, following a century of successful interstate arbitrations such as those between the United States and Great Britain under the Jay Treaty and the Treaty of Ghent, and it reflected the high hopes of the conference participants that the institution would bring about world peace through arbitration. However, after a decade or two of glory, the PCA gradually fell into disuse as states lost interest in arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism, and it became aptly known as the “Sleeping Beauty of the Peace Palace” (Sam Muller & Wim Mijs, “The Flame Rekindled” (1993) 6(2) Leiden Journal of International Law). There are many political, historical, and legal rationales for this downturn, including the outbreak of the two World Wars, changes in the international political system, and the creation of the PCIJ and ICJ. This post focuses on another development that, while perhaps less recognized, is arguably responsible in part for the decline of interstate arbitrations during the 20th century, and is still relevant today. This development is the gradual ‘judicialization’ or ‘legalization’ of interstate arbitration to the point of being effectively equated with judicial settlement and both its original nature and distinctive qualities becoming imperceptible and inconsequential.
The evolution of interstate arbitration
The origins of arbitration can be traced back to ancient Greece, where arbitrators were seen as quasi-diplomats rather than judges, and could therefore “consider the equity of the case, whereas a judge is bound by the letter of the law” (Aristotle, cited in M.C.W. Pinto, “The Prospects for International Arbitration: Inter-state Disputes” in A.H.A. Soons, ed, International Arbitration: Past and Prospects (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1990)). Arbitration continued to be used during the Middle Ages to end wars by reconciling the warring parties, and when the modern era of interstate arbitration began with the signing of the 1794 Jay Treaty between Great Britain and the United States, it was perceived as a hybrid process that combined legal proceedings with diplomatic negotiations. For instance, some of the disputes submitted to arbitration under the Jay Treaty were to be decided according to “justice, equity, and the laws of nations”, and their successful settlement was largely credited to the commissioners’ “spirit of negotiation and compromise”. While they rendered binding decisions and applied legal principles, the commissioners also “act[ed] to some extent as negotiators rather than as judges … temper[ed] justice with diplomacy [in order] to give a measure of satisfaction to both sides” (Pinto, 1990).
This perception of interstate arbitration persisted in the first decades of the 20th century. Some states, for instance, distinguished between judicial settlement, designed to resolve “legal disputes”, and arbitration, designed to resolve all other disputes ex aequo et bono while “having regard to the general principles of international law” (e.g., the 1928 Geneva General Act for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (.pdf); the 1957 European Convention for the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes). Arbitrators were also “prepared to waive a strict application of the law in order to achieve an acceptable settlement” in interstate disputes, such as the 1909 Casablanca case and the 1910 North Atlantic Fisheries case (M.C.W. Pinto, “Structure, Process, Outcome: Thoughts on the ‘Essence’ of International Arbitration” (1993) 6 Leiden Journal of International Law). However, as a result of the growing global quest during the 20th century for “orderly” interstate dispute settlement through the application of law, this quasi-diplomatic use of interstate arbitration gradually fell into disuse, and the dominant perception became that of the International Law Commission, which viewed it as “a procedure for the settlement of disputes between States … on the basis of law” (Pinto, 1990 (.pdf)). Accordingly, states increasingly restricted or excluded the power of arbitrators to decide disputes on the basis of equity or non-legal considerations and in all but a few rare, yet successful, cases (e.g., the 1968 Rann of Kutch arbitration; the 1986 Guinea-Guinea Bissau arbitration) arbitrators followed suit. The perception that only ‘judicial’ arbitration based on law should be “arbitration properly so called” thus became the conventional wisdom, even though in some cases, such as the 1977 Beagle Channel arbitration, it failed to resolve the parties’ dispute (Pinto, 1990, 1993). (more…)