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South America

U.S. Appeals Court Holds that “Domestic Takings” Can Violate International Law

by Julian Ku

As I continue to avoid grading my exams, I ran across this interesting recent case (Helmerich & Payne v. Venezuela) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit which considered whether Venezuela’s expropriation of a Venezuelan subsidiary of a U.S. corporation is a “taking in violation of international law” under Section 1605(a)(3) of the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Ven

Helmerich & Payne, a U.S. based company, alleges that the government of Venezuela expropriated its Venezuelan subsidiary and sued Venezuela in U.S. court.  Venezuela argued that it is immune under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because, among other reasons, its expropriation fo the subsidiary is not a “taking in violation of international law” for the purposes of the FSIA.  The FSIA does contain an exception for such claims in the so-called “Hickenlooper Amendment” to the FSIA enacted in the wake of the well-known Sabbatino case from the early 1960s.

What I find fascinating is the Court’s rejection of Venezuela’s argument that as a “domestic takings”, its expropriation of a Venezuelan company cannot violate international law, even if (as in this case) the sole shareholder of that Venezuelan company was a U.S. national and that there is plenty of evidence of anti-U.S. animus motivating the expropriation.      This is indeed a difficult question, and I am struck that the D.C. Circuit held that such a taking “could” violate international law but it relied solely on other U.S. court precedents (the 1962 Second Circuit decision in Sabbatino) and Section 712 of the Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law.  This is pretty thin precedent, as the dissenting judge in this case points out.  I am not ordinarily one to yell for citation of international and foreign sources, but given the clear language of the FSIA (a “taking in violation of international law”), it is odd that no international or foreign sources were consulted.

In any event, I am curious whether any of our readers could help out by pointing to other precedents on the question of “domestic takings” under international law.  I have a feeling the DC Circuit reached the right conclusion here, but I am troubled by the lack of authority for its holding.

 

Does President Obama Need Congress to Lift the Embargo on Cuba? Yes.

by Julian Ku

It looks like a big showdown is brewing between the President and Congress over Cuba policy (Here comes 2016 presidential candidate Rubio!).  Some legal commentators have argued, however, that President Obama already has the legal authority to lift all or most of the Cuba embargo without any further action by Congress.  Robert Muse, a lawyer whose practice is all about Cuba sanctions law, has stated that the President has very broad discretion to lift most of the restrictions on trade with Cuba without further congressional action. Is he right?

I am not Cuba sanctions law expert, so it is possible I am missing something.  Since the bulk of the Cuba sanctions are found in regulations issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control pursuant to the Trading with the Enemy Act, it would seem like President Obama could indeed lift those sanctions by simply withdrawing those regulations.  The TWEA has never been read to require sanctions, and President Carter lifted similar sanctions on China without Congress in 1979.

On the other hand, Congress has also enacted two Cuba-specific statutes: the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (CDA), 22 U.S.C. §§ 6001-6010 and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996, 22 U.S.C. §§ 6021-6091 (“Helms Burton). The latter appears to codify” the OFAC regulations on Cuba that were initially issued under the TWEA. See Section 102(h) (“Codification of Economic Embargo.– The economic embargo of Cuba, as in effect on March 1, 1996, including all restrictions under part 515 of title 31, Code of Federal Regulations, shall be in effect upon the enactment of this Act, and shall remain in effect, subject to section 204 of this Act.”).  Section 204 in turn “authorizes” the President to lift sanctions only after submitting a determination to Congress that a transitional government in Cuba exists and that the lifting of sanctions will contribute “to the stable foundation for democratic government.” There is also the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA), 22 U.S.C. §§ 7201-7211, which imposes further limitations on financial transactions with Cuba and allows no Presidential waiver.

It is worth noting that President Clinton expressed some reservations about the impact of Section 102(h) when he signed the Helms-Burton Act, stating that it”could be read to impose overly rigid constraints on the implementation of our foreign policy.” But Clinton didn’t suggest imposing conditions on when the President could lift sanctions actually violated the Constitution.  Since I assume Congress is the source of the authority to impose sanctions in the first place, it seems reasonable that Congress could impose conditions on when those sanctions can be lifted.  Any argument that those conditions themselves are unconstitutional would be a remarkably aggressive legal argument.

So I don’t think the calls from some quarters for a unilateral lifting of the embargo on Cuba is supportable as a legal matter.  In fact, there are good reasons to doubt the legality of the loosening of sanctions already announced by OFAC.  In any event, there will be lots of legal skirmishing over the next few months on this front. It will be interesting to see if President Obama ever pulls out the “presidentialist” card and tries to argue some of these sanctions laws violate his constitutional authority.  I would doubt it, but then again I never thought he would engage in a separate war in Iraq and Syria with ISIS and change US immigration law without Congress either.

 

The ICC, Continuing Crimes, and Lago Agrio

by Kevin Jon Heller

Lawyers for the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have filed a communication with the ICC asking the OTP to investigate Chevron officials for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with the company’s “rainforest Chernobyl” in Ecuador. Ecuador ratified the Rome Statute in 2002.

Regular readers know my sympathies — both ethical and legal — lie squarely with the Lago Agrio plaintiffs. The only thing more unconscionable than Chevron’s destruction of the rainforest in Ecuador is its willingness to lie and manufacture evidence in order to avoid paying for its destruction. In a world with better criminal laws, I have no doubt that the CEO of Chevron and everyone else involved in the company’s misdeeds would be serving long prison sentences somewhere.

But we do not live in a world with better laws, and unfortunately the Lago Agrio plaintiffs’ communication faces a steep uphill battle. To begin with, the communication is not quite sure what Chevron has done that qualifies as a crime against humanity. It oscillates — very confusingly — between failing to pay the damages award in Ecuador (p. 19), attempting to cover up the extent of the pollution in Ecuador (p. 23), engaging in unsavoury litigation practices (p. 25), maintaining the polluted conditions (p. 36), and causing the pollution in the first place (p. 36). Those are, of course, very different arguments.

One thing is clear: the ICC could not prosecute Chevron’s deliberate dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste-water into the Lago Agrio region, because that dumping occurred long before 1 July 2002, when the Rome Statue entered into force. That’s too bad, because I think a strong case can be made that intentional pollution of an area occupied by civilians could, in the right circumstances, qualify as a number of crimes against humanity — from forcible transfer to persecution to “other inhumane acts.” As the plaintiffs rightly note (p. 27), an “attack on a civilian population” does not have to involve physical violence.

That said, the communication seems to suggest that the plaintiffs view the contamination as some kind of continuing crime. It claims (p. 40), for example, that the potential crimes against humanity involved in the dumping “continue even today.” The idea seems to be that those crimes will continue until Chevron remediates the pollution — similar to the idea, promoted by various scholars, that Israel’s illegal transfer of its civilians into the West Bank will qualify as a crime against humanity until such time as the settlements are disbanded or that enforced disappearances continue until the responsible government identifies the fate of the victims. It is an open question whether the ICC will even recognise continuing crimes, as the ICTR has. I’m skeptical, given the drafters of the Rome Statute’s quite deliberate decision not to give the ICC retroactive jurisdiction. Few Latin American governments would have ratified the Rome Statute if they knew that their actions during the Dirty War would be open to judicial scrutiny.

But let’s assume the ICC will recognise continuing crimes. Would that mean the Lago Agrio plaintiffs have a case? It’s an interesting question. As noted above, it’s possible that Chevron’s deliberate pollution of the Lago Agrio region qualified as the crime against humanity of forcible transfer; “forcible” doesn’t require physical force and the defendant(s) do not have to intend to drive people fro where they are lawfully entitled to be. (They simply have to be virtually certain that will be the result.) So there is at least an argument that Chevron is responsible for forcible transfer until it cleans up the region to the point where displaced residents can return to their homes. But I can’t see the ICC accepting that argument, if only because of the potential implications — there are probably dozens of situations in member-states in which pollution predictably drove people from their homes and continues to prevent their return. That’s the problem with “continuing crimes”: they simply throw open the courthouse door in a manner the drafters of the Rome Statute were unlikely to have intended.

But that is not the only problem with the communication. Even if the ICC recognised continuing crimes, it is not clear how the current crop of Chevron officials could be held responsible for the (continuing) forcible transfer of people from Lago Agrio. Aiding and abetting would seem to be the most likely mode of participation, given that those officials presumably had nothing to do with the dumping of the waste (which was done by Texaco, which Chevron later acquired). Not paying the judgment and litigation misconduct, though reprehensible, would hardly qualify as aiding and abetting the forcible transfer. (I suppose one could argue paying the plaintiffs would make it easier for them to return home, but I can’t see the ICC convicting someone on such an attenuated basis.) The only real argument would be that Chevron’s current officials are aiding and abetting the continuing forcible transfer by failing to remediate the environmental damage in Lago Agrio. That is not a nonsensical idea, but it seems unlikely to succeed. Art. 25(3)(c) aiding and abetting would almost certainly be off the table, because it would require the Chevron officials to subjectively intend for people in Lago Agrio not to be able to return to their homes. No matter what you think of Chevron — and I obviously think precious little — that would be nearly impossible to prove. More likely is Art. 25(3)(d)’s version of aiding and abetting, contributing to a group crime, which would “only” require the OTP to prove that Chevron officials contributed to the forcible transfer by impeding remediation despite knowing that Chevron intended for the displacement to continue. Again, no matter what you think of Chevron’s remediation efforts (much of which was fraudulent), that’s a stretch. Not impossible, to be sure. But a stretch.

In short, unless the ICC is willing to recognise continuing crimes and adopt a very capacious understanding of aiding and abetting, it is difficult to see the OTP opening an investigation into the Lago Agrio situation. All of the other crimes against humanity identified by the Lago Agrio plaintiffs — murder, persecution, other inhumane acts — clearly took place, if they took place at all, long before 1 July 2002. And the current Chevron officials can hardly be held accountable for them.

Can a U.S. Judge Hold the Government of Argentina in “Contempt”?

by Julian Ku

In the latest round in the never-ending battle between Argentina and its holdout bondholders, a U.S. court has found Argentina to be in “contempt” for trying to circumvent that US court’s orders. Argentina has been outraged by such an order, arguing that a  state cannot be held in “contempt” because it is an affront to its sovereign dignity (with Argentina’s president denouncing the U.S. judge as “senile“).   Indeed, the Argentine government on Monday sent a very interesting letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry setting out why it believes it cannot be subject to a “contempt” order in a domestic U.S. court.

The Argentine Republic notes that it is completely absurd for plaintiffs to argue that a local judge can hold a foreign State “in contempt”. This position can only arise from ignorance or a distorted view of the fundamental rules of international law currently in force and the peaceful coexistence of global order.

The principles on which international coexistence rests are reflected in the Charter of the United Nations. One of these principles refers to sovereign equality of all States and is expressly embodied in Article 2(1) of that Charter. This is a fundamental principle when it comes to determining what a State can or cannot do in relation to other States.

When any branch of government of a State denies “equal” status to another State, it not only manifestly violates international law but it also risks setting a precedent for the commission of similar violations of international law to its own detriment.

I think that Argentina’s argument that contempt orders and other judicial sanctions against it are violations of international law (even thought it has consented to that domestic jurisdiction) can draw some support from the statements of the U.S. government itself (which is quoted extensively in the letter).  The problem for Argentina is that the U.S. judicial system has not agreed with the U.S. government’s views on many of these questions.  So US law is no help to Argentina here (for the most part). And the U.S. government has almost no legal mechanisms to change the district court’s actions here, so the letter is largely for public consumption.

The harder question is whether (as Argentina argues) there is a generally accepted rule of international law that a court cannot hold a sovereign in contempt where that sovereign has consented to the jurisdiction of that court.  This is a tricky question and one worth thinking about further. I hope to post on that when I have had more time to digest it.

Rolling Stone on Chevron’s Dirty Tricks in the Lago Agrio Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about Chevron’s “Rainforest Chernobyl” — the company’s deliberate dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste-water into Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region. But I want to call readers’ attention to a blockbuster new article in Rolling Stone that details the wide variety of dirty tricks Chevron has used to avoid paying the multi-billion-dollar judgment against it in Ecuador. (The plaintiffs filed the suit in the US. Chevron demanded that it be moved to Ecuador, where it expected a friendly government to ensure it would win.) Here is my favorite snippet, discussing the $2 million Chevron paid one of its contractors to create fake laboratories the company could use to “test” Lago Agrio field samples:

We don’t know everything about the soil-and-water testing phase of the trial. But we do have hours of recorded conversations between Santiago Escobar, an Ecuadorean living in Toronto, and a Chevron contractor named Diego Borja.

Borja was already part of the Chevron extended family when the company hired him to transport coolers containing the company’s field samples to supposedly independent labs. His uncle, a 30-year Chevron employee, owned the building housing Chevron’s Ecuadorean legal staff. As he carried out his work, Borja collected more than one kind of dirt. In recorded calls to Escobar in 2009, Borja explained how Chevron’s Miami office helped him set up front companies posing as independent laboratories. (Among his Miami bosses was Reis Veiga, one of the lawyers indicted for corruption in the 1997 Texaco remediation settlement with the Ecuadorean government.)

Borja contacted Escobar because he thought his information might be valuable to the other side. “Crime does pay,” he told Escobar. In the calls, Borja suggests Chevron feared exposure and prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “If [a U.S.] judge finds out that the company did cooked things, he’ll say, ‘Tomorrow we better close them down,’ you get it?” He boasted of possessing correspondence “that talks about things you can’t even imagine … things that can make the Amazons [plaintiffs] win this just like that.” In awe of Chevron’s power, Borja said the company has “all the tools in the world to go after everyone. Because these guys, once the trial is over, they’ll go after everyone who was saying things about it.” Still, the benefits of working with them were great. “Once you’re a partner of the guys,” he told Escobar, “you’ve got it made. It’s a brass ring this big, brother.”

Borja’s brass ring was ultimately worth over $2 million. Sometime around 2010, he was naturalized at Chevron’s expense and moved into a $6,000-a-month gated community near Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, California. Why the company finds his loyalty worth so much is hard to say, because Judge Kaplan blocked further discovery. When asked if Borja is still being paid by the company, Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said, “Not as far as I know.”

“Kaplan gave Chevron unlimited access to our files,” says Donziger, “but allowed them to maintain a complete iron curtain of privilege over everything related to the misconduct of non-attorneys like Borja and its network of espionage operatives.”

I’m skeptical the Lago Agrio plaintiffs will ever receive the justice they deserve — particularly in a US courtroom. But at least articles like this one help illuminate the lengths to which multinationals like Chevron will go to avoid being held responsible for their actions.

Emerging Voices: Freedom or Restraint? On the Comparison Between the European and Inter-American Human Rights Courts

by Lucas Barreiros

[Lucas E. Barreiros is a Professor of Public International Law and Coordinator of International Human Rights Law Masters Program at the University of Buenos Aires.]

While much attention has been paid to the differences and similarities between the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) as well as to the dialogue between them [see here, here, here and here for examples], none of that attention has been devoted to comparing the one aspect of their work that best and most synthetically captures all that sets them apart – that is, the doctrines of “margin of appreciation” and “control of conventionality”. It is proposed here that more attention should be paid to the explanatory power of these two doctrines in understanding the different identities and diverging trajectories of the ECHR and the IACHR.

As known, the “margin of appreciation” doctrine was developed by the ECHR starting in its Handyside v. United Kingdom judgment. It has been understood to refer, as pointed out by Steven Greer, to “the room for manoeuvre that the Strasbourg institutions are prepared to accord to national authorities in fulfilling their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”. The rationale for allowing this margin of appreciation, as pointed out by the ECHR in Handyside when referring to the conditions set out in the Convention to lawfully restrict the freedom of expression, is that national authorities, “by reason of their direct and continuous contact with the vital forces of their countries (…) are in a better position than the international judge to give an opinion on the exact content of these requirements”.

For its part, the “control of conventionality” was first mentioned by the IACHR in its judgment in the Case of Almonacid Arellano et al v. Chile.The IACHR held that:

“(…) domestic judges and courts are bound to respect the rule of law, and therefore, they are bound to apply the provisions in force within the legal system. But when a State has ratified an international treaty such as the American Convention, its judges, as part of the State, are also bound by such Convention. This forces them to see that all the effects of the provisions embodied in the Convention are not adversely affected by the enforcement of laws which are contrary to its purpose and that have not had any legal effects since their inception. In other words, the Judiciary must exercise a sort of “conventionality control” between the domestic legal provisions which are applied to specific cases and the American Convention on Human Rights. To perform this task, the Judiciary has to take into account not only the treaty, but also the interpretation thereof made by the Inter-American Court, which is the ultimate interpreter of the American Convention.” (emphasis added).

It should be noted that there are two components to the doctrine – one deals with the responsibility of national authorities to ensure that the application of national legislation does not adversely affect the rights under the American Convention of Human Rights; the other, however, is the direct opposite of the “margin of appreciation” as it leaves no room for national authorities to conduct their own assessment and requires them to apply the interpretation of the IACHR.

(more…)

Emerging Voices: Extraordinary Reparations, Legitimacy, and the Inter-American Court

by David Attanasio

[David L. Attanasio is a professor of law at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá, Colombia, and Doctoral candidate in philosophy at U.C.L.A.]

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the highest authority dedicated to enforcing international human rights law in the Inter-American system—has received deep praise for its influential and innovative reparations decisions (.pdf). Nonetheless, its more innovative reparations measures suffer from a serious problem of legitimacy, in that they do not seem to respond to the human rights violations that the Court identifies. Specifically, in the vast majority of its reparations decisions since 2001, the Court has ordered what I call extraordinary reparations, measures such as human rights training, changes to law and policy, improvements in the justice system, and provision of education, water, food, or public services (preceding links to .pdfs). These typically are in addition to compensation payments and other measures explicitly designed to eliminate the violation’s consequences. Although the Court has not adequately defended its practice of ordering extraordinary reparations, several potential bases of legitimacy may justify its principal decisions. Some extraordinary reparations are disguised orders to cease violations, others seek to repair damage to communities, and some aim to repair victim trust in the state.

Despite the importance of its innovations, the Inter-American Court has not explained why it may order extraordinary reparations, particularly when it has already ordered measures supposedly sufficient to eliminate the effects of past human rights violations. For example, following a forced disappearance (.pdf), the Court ordered monetary compensation for the victim’s family supposedly equivalent to the harm suffered, but went on to order, among other measures, a literacy program for the victim’s mother. The American Convention on Human Rights empowers the Court to order reparations only for identified human rights violations, not to order any measure it thinks might make for a better state or for a more human rights-friendly social environment. It is not an international legislature. However, extraordinary reparations, which often appear aimed at changing the victim’s circumstances, apparently lack any “causal nexus” (.pdf) with a past human rights violation. As states have complained (.pdf), they do not seem to address the violation’s effects, as other reparative measures such as restitution or compensation are supposedly sufficient for that objective. The Court lacks explicit principles in its jurisprudence sufficient to clarify when and why extraordinary reparations might be legitimate.

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Here Comes That Frivolous Argentina ICJ Claim! Oh, And They Have No Jurisdiction Either!

by Julian Ku

As I noted last week, Argentina has been making threats to take the US government to the International Court of Justice over the results of US litigation over their 2002 sovereign debt default.  And so today, Argentina has made good on its threat by filing an application to the ICJ contending that “that the United States of America has committed violations of Argentine sovereignty and immunities and other related violations as a result of judicial decisions adopted by US tribunals concerning the restructuring of the Argentine public debt.”

As the ICJ’s press release notes, Argentina is seeking to found jurisdiction upon the U.S. deciding to grant consent to the case. But the U.S. has no obligation to give such consent, nor does it have any incentive to do so. Nor does Argentina (I suspect) really expect the U.S. to grant consent.  This is almost certainly a way to show its people and the world that it has a grievance, without actually ever having to test that grievance in a judicial proceeding.

And the fact that this lawsuit has no chance of getting to a court is probably a good strategy for Argentina. The actual specific claims are not yet available, but I have a hard time imagining they are anything but frivolous.  The only claim I am aware of that was raised by a commenter to my post last week is that Judge Griesa exceeded his jurisdiction by ordering third-party banks not to pay out moneys on bonds issued under foreign law.  This is an interesting argument, and even if it were plausible, I don’t understand why Argentina has not raised that argument directly to the U.S. courts. And this would still not impact the bonds issued under New York law.

Bottom line: there is no chance that Argentina gets the U.S. to accept jurisdiction before the ICJ. Expect more grandstanding from the Argentine government as it tries to use the ICJ as an international public relations platform.

Emerging Voices: New Citizenship Law Will Not End Race-based Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

by Jillian Blake

[Jillian Blake is an immigration attorney at a non-profit organization in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).]

In May, Dominican President Danilo Medina signed a new naturalization law aimed at restoring the rights of some who were stripped of their citizenship in a September 2013 Supreme Court ruling. The ruling held that those born in the Dominican Republic to undocumented immigrants, who are predominantly black and of Haitian origin, are not Dominican citizens and instructed the government to apply the ruling retroactively, going back to 1929. International human rights groups strongly condemned the decision as racist and xenophobic and argued it would render hundreds of thousands of people stateless. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an international organization made up of 15 Caribbean states, also denounced the ruling and suspended the Dominican Republic’s application for membership.

The new citizenship law, Law 169-14, was passed this spring in response to the international backlash against the Supreme Court decision. Law 169-14 establishes a regime to restore the citizenship rights of those born between 1929 and 2007 who are entered in the civil registry. Notably, the law excludes restoration of citizenship to those born between 2007 and 2010, the year the new Dominican Constitution first revoked jus soli citizenship, or citizenship based on where one is born. All those born after 2007, or who are not in the civil registry, are required to register as foreigners and will then have to apply for regularization and naturalization.

While the law could restore citizenship rights to thousands of people, it is far from a final victory against statelessness in the Dominican Republic. First, the law only addresses a small percentage of those impacted by the Supreme Court ruling. According to human rights groups roughly 24,000 of the more than 200,000 people rendered stateless could qualify to have their citizenship restored under the law, and even that restoration is not automatic. Part of the reason so few will be affected is that for many years hospitals and government agencies refused to issue birth certificates or other identity documents to children of parents of Haitian origin. Many children born in the Dominican Republic do not have birth certificates and/or are not listed in the civil registry. Any long-lasting solution will require hospitals to issue birth certificates for, and enter into the civil registry, all persons born in the Dominican Republic and recognize their citizenship. There also should be a national drive to document (as citizens) those born in the Dominican Republic who do not currently possess birth certificates.

Second, the new law is still premised on the illegal assumption that those born in Dominican territory are not citizens. This retrogression of established inter-American law, which recognizes jus soli citizenship, is not only illegitimate but could lead to the denial of rights elsewhere in the future. Third, given the racially-biased administration of past immigration and naturalization regulations in the Dominican Republic, there is a serious concern that even those entitled to the restoration of citizenship under the law will never actually be recognized as citizens. Fourth, the law requires those who are not in the civil registry to register with the government within 90 days after the law takes affect, which will exclude many who can’t register in time, especially the poor and those living in remote areas. Finally, the law will not restore citizenship to future generations born in the Dominican Republic, which will leave a perpetual system of statelessness in the country.

In an Article forthcoming in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives entitled, “Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Race-based Statelessness in the Americas” I analyze the 2013 Supreme Court decision and long history of citizenship exclusion based on racial and ethnic prejudice in the Dominican Republic. (more…)

Argentina Defaults (Again) and Issues a Frivolous Threat to Sue the U.S. For Causing the Default

by Julian Ku

According to Standard & Poor’s, Argentina has defaulted on at least some of its sovereign bonds, after last minute negotiations failed to reach a deal with its holdout bondholders, who had won a series of victories in U.S. court.  Although there are reports that some U.S. banks representing the rest of the bondholders are exploring ways to buy out the holdout bondholders on Argentina’s behalf (no doubt by having Argentina borrow even more money to do so), Argentina seems ready to go to the mattresses, so to speak. Or, at least in this case, to take the U.S. to the ICJ:

[Argentina Cabinet Chief] Capitanich said Argentina would denounce the “vulture funds” before the International Court of Justice at The Hague and the United Nations General Assembly.

Argentina has been going all out to try to convince other countries and the international community to support its cause including full page ads in major US newspapers, a diplomatic offensive at the recent Organization of American States meeting, and finally this threat to sue the U.S. government for failing to reign in its courts in the holdout creditor litigation against Argentina.

As far as the ICJ goes, this is a pretty idle threat. The ICJ would not have compulsory jurisdiction over the U.S. in this matter, so at best the ICJ would be asked to issue an advisory opinion.  But even in that case, what exactly is Argentina’s claim? That the U.S. has violated international law by blocking some of Argentina’s debt payments?  What international law obligation is being violated? Until someone explains what the legal theory is, I will classify this part of Argentina’s campaign to justify its latest default as just more hot air.

Guest Post: Argentina and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Round 2

by Michael Ramsey

[Michael D. Ramsey is the Hugh and Hazel Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego Law School. Professor Ramsey previously prepared an analysis of this case for the Judicial Education Project supporting the bondholders, for which he was compensated.]

In a new claim in the long-running battle between Argentina and holders of its defaulted bonds (see here), the question is whether a U.S. court can order Argentina not to pay some bondholders unless it also pays others.  Again, Argentina says the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) protects it, and again it tries to make the Act’s text say something it does not.

To recap, a decade ago Argentina stopped making payments on some of its bonds, and the private bondholders (including NML Capital) sued Argentina in federal court in New York (as the FSIA and the contracts governing the bonds allowed them to do).  Argentina refused to pay the resulting judgments against it, so the bondholders are seeking enforcement.  One approach is to seek discovery of Argentina’s worldwide assets; whether a U.S. court can make such an order is the subject of the first Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital case, argued to the U.S. Supreme Court in April.

The bondholders’ second strategy involves a clause in the bond contracts known as the equal treatment or pari passu clause.  To oversimplify, after Argentina initially failed to make payments on the bonds, it persuaded many of the bondholders to accept new bonds, with substantially reduced payments (but some hope of salvaging part of their investment).  NML Capital (and a few others) refused to take the deal, and sued for full payment of the original bonds instead.  Argentina now wants to pay the new bondholders (that is, those who agreed to the refinancing) while refusing to pay the holders of the old bonds.

But that sort of discrimination among bondholders, the U.S. court held, violates the “equal treatment” clause in the original bond contracts: the clause says that the old bonds have to be treated equally to any new bonds, and clearly they aren’t.    Argentina had already said it wouldn’t obey a court order to pay on the old bonds.  So the holders of the old bonds asked the court for an injunction barring payment on the new bonds unless the old bonds receive equal treatment.  The district court granted the order and the Second Circuit affirmed.

Now Argentina is bringing this claim to the U.S. Supreme Court on petition for certiorari (scheduled to be considered at the June 12 conference).  As with the case involving the discovery order, its supposed shield is the FSIA.  But again, Argentina is trying to make the FSIA do something it does not.  Argentina concedes that the FSIA allows the bondholders’ suit: Argentina waived its sovereign immunity in the bond contracts, and the FSIA allows suit where immunity is waived (Section 1605(a)(1)).  The FSIA further says (Section 1606) that non-immune sovereigns are (subject to specific exceptions) liable to the same extent as private litigants.

The only plausible exception (and the only one Argentina argues) (more…)

Pari Passu Clauses: An Alternative Interpretation

by Hayk Kupelyants

[Hayk Kupelyants is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge]

Pari passu clauses remain perhaps the most nebulous clauses found in sovereign bonds. Among varying wordings, the clause in its simplest form provides that the bonds will rank pari passu (i.e., on equal footing). The clause puzzled many academics and has given rise to legal battles before national courts, for it is undeniable that the state is not subject to a bankruptcy regime where the pari passu treatment is naturally well-fitted.

Two interpretations have been offered to demystify the function of the pari passu in sovereign debt bonds. The first and the most controversial of these constructions argues that the clause requires equal payment to all, even holdout, bondholders. Recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in NML v Argentina has endorsed this interpretation of the pari passu clause. Under this construction of the clause, a sovereign debtor is obliged to pay to all bondholders, even those who held out from the sovereign debt restructuring. The pari passu clause can thus become a powerful tool in the hands of holdout creditors which seek to reclaim the full value of the bonds they hold by claiming that the state is in breach of the pari passu clause by the mere fact of refusing to pay up.

Many academics have argued that this interpretation of the pari passu clause is too far-fetched (at least for the pari passu clauses that do not expressly refer to ‘payment’ in their wording). On its face, pari passu clauses simply require equal (legal) ranking, whereas the payment under bonds is a question of factual performance of the contract and not a question of priorities or ranking.

The second and the conventional interpretation of the pari passu clause argues that the clause merely ensures equal legal ranking and no factual equality in terms of payment. By this, the sovereign debtor would be under no obligation to pay to all bondholders.

Two counter-arguments spring to mind. (more…)