Argentina to U.S. Court: We Won’t Obey Your Order Because We Are a Sovereign. So There!

by Julian Ku

I have been remiss in not pointing interested readers to Anna Gelpern’s terrific posts on the ongoing NML v. Argentina sovereign debt litigation that is going on here in New York.   I want to highlight in particular her incredibly useful and interesting account of the scene last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard arguments challenging a lower federal court’s order that Argentina has an obligation to pay its holdout creditors at the same time it pays its restructured creditors via a “pari passu” clause in its sovereign debt contracts.  The bottom line: Gelpern seems to predict the US court will order Argentina to pay its holdout creditors, but probably not the full amount they are seeking.  And she doubts Argentina will pay up anyway.

Indeed, from an international law perspective, this last point is the most fascinating part of the argument. The lawyer for Argentina made clear to the court that Argentina would not comply with the court’s order to pay the holdouts. Period. Here is Gelpern’s description:

Big Bonus Feature: Sovereign Prerogative. One of the bigger bombshells of the day came from Argentina in the form of the statement that it would default on everyone unless the Court adopted something like its payment formula. The fact that the statement was made with the Vice President and the Economy Minister sitting in the room made it feel like an even bigger deal. Jonathan Blackman’s contention was that sovereigns do not and cannot — and Argentina will not —  ”voluntarily obey” foreign judgments against their own domestic law and public policy. Argentina’s submission to U.S. jurisdiction was made subject to the understanding that under FSIA, some judgments could go unenforced, and them’s the ropes. Since NML was effectively (though not technically) trying to enforce a judgment, it was out of luck. Blackman’s hypothetical of an Iranian court order against the U.S. government seemed like a high-risk move under the circumstances. The threat of default prompted Ted Olson for NML to say that Argentina promised this extreme course ”to force this Court to back down … The Court cannot give into that!” ….

It is (to say the least) extraordinary when a party to a dispute makes the argument that it will simply not comply with an order of the court that has jurisdiction over it.  As a matter of litigation strategy, it is simply bad tactics since it usually enrages the judges.

From an international law perspective, it should be clear that Argentina’s action, although defensible, is not in any way justified by international law, although it is not prohibited by international law either.  What strikes me about the statement is that it is really quite “sovereigntist” and based on a realist, hard-nosed approach to international law and contracts.

As I discussed in an earlier post, Argentina has waived almost all of its sovereign immunity defenses when it issued the bonds, and agreed to New York law:

To the extent the Republic [of Argentina] or any of its revenues, assets or properties shall be entitled … to any immunity from suit, … from attachment prior to judgment, … from execution of a judgment or from any other legal or judicial process or remedy, … the Republic has irrevocably agreed not to claim and has irrevocably waived such immunity to the fullest extent permitted by the laws of such jurisdiction…

So Argentina agreed to give up its immunity defenses under international law and submit to the US courts.

If I understand Argentina, it is now saying to the US court: You try to enforce this order on us, and we walk away. We won’t pay anyone, including the other restructured creditors. Your only remedy is to try to attach our non-commercial assets, which you can’t do under US law. Ironically, if US law permitted such attachments, Argentina’s waiver would plainly subject it to such attachments.

I think this strategy could work for Argentina, although they deserve plenty of additional reputational damage for this move.  They sold bonds in the US, waived their international law defenses, and raised billions of dollars.  Arguably, they also agreed by contract to pay all creditors via its pari passu clause.

Now they are taking advantage of a quirk in US law to escape their obligations.  They are even playing the “sovereignty” card, by pointing to their own domestic law as a basis for their refusal to pay.  And respect for their sovereignty is probably why they get away with this move, as slimy as it seems to do so in this case.  Maybe that’s the right result, but I wouldn’t want to celebrate it in any way.

Law of the Sea Tribunal Resoundingly Affirms the Sovereign Immunity of Warships and Orders Ghana to Release Argentine Tall Ship ARA Libertad

by Craig Allen

[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law at the University of Washington in Seattle.]

On December 15, 2012, one phase of the dispute between the Argentine Republic and the Republic of Ghana over the “seizure” of the Argentine frigate ARA Libertad while in a Ghanaian port came to an end, when the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany ordered Ghana to “forthwith and unconditionally release the frigate ARA Libertad” and to “ensure that the frigate ARA Libertad, its Commander and crew are able to leave the port of Tema and the maritime areas under the jurisdiction of Ghana, and … that the frigate ARA Libertad is resupplied to that end.” (See Order of 15 December 2012).

The order came just one month after Argentina filed its application for provisional measures with the ITLOS. The tribunal’s decision—which should receive a warm welcome in the Pentagon—sends a clear message on the principle of sovereign immunity of warships and the readiness of ITLOS to enforce that immunity even when the warship is in the port or internal waters of another state—at least if the involved states are party to the 1982 LOS Convention.

The dispute between the two states has its roots in Argentina’s 2001 default on roughly $100 billion in sovereign debt, reportedly the largest sovereign default in history. NML Capital Investments, which owns some $1billion in Argentina’s sovereign debt, obtained judgment in a New York federal district court for $284 million in 2006. The U.K. Supreme Court later upheld NML’s right to execute its judgment against Argentina’s assets in the U.K. (NML Capital Ltd  v Republic of Argentina, [2010] EWCA Civ. 41, aff’d, [2011] UKSC 33), a decision extensively relied on by agents for Ghana during oral argument at the ITLOS.

Don’t Cry for the World’s Greatest Sovereign Deadbeat

by Julian Ku

Argentina is, to put it bluntly, one of the world’s greatest sovereign deadbeats, defaulting on its sovereign bonds more than once as well as bearing the distinction of being the world’s number one respondent in ICSID arbitration claims (or at least close to number one).  Last week, the ongoing struggle between foreign creditors and Argentina found a new flashpoint as investors brought an action in Ghana to attach ARA Libertad, an Argentina government naval training ship that was on a goodwill tour of West Africa.

Argentina had defaulted on its sovereign bonds in 2002 and various investors who did not accept Argentina’s settlement of those debts (which involved a 70% “haircut”)  have been seeking to collect on those debts ever since, especially in litigation occurring in the U.S. and the U.K.  So far, however, investors have failed to collect much money, even though a U.S. court has granted summary judgment holding Argentina liable for more than $280 million (with lots of interest accruing).

The Ghana litigation is the latest round in this ongoing struggle to collect on this judgment. The commercial court in Accra has refused Argentina’s effort to lift an injunction preventing ARA Libertad from leaving Ghana, holding that Argentina’s bonds waived applicable sovereign immunity defenses. Indeed, most courts seem to have agreed that  Argentina has indeed waived its immunity defenses. Here is an excerpt of their waiver, as described in a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decision: (E.M. Ltd. V. Republic of Argentina (2d Cir. Aug. 20, 2012)

To the extent the Republic [of Argentina] or any of its revenues, assets or properties shall be entitled … to any immunity from suit, … from attachment prior to judgment, … from execution of a judgment or from any other legal or judicial process or remedy, … the Republic has irrevocably agreed not to claim and has irrevocably waived such immunity to the fullest extent permitted by the laws of such jurisdiction…

Of course, this waiver does not necessarily mean that all of Argentina’s assets can be seized or attached.  In U.S. litigation, courts have held that this waiver allows U.S. courts to attach Argentina state assets that are used for a commercial activity.  (NML Capital v. Argentina, 680 F.3d 254 (2d Cir. 2012)).  If such an approach is followed in Ghana, I am not sure whether the foreign investors would be able to prevail since they would have to prove that the ARA Libertad is being used for a commercial as opposed to a naval activity.

On the other hand, Ghana law could very well be more favorable to the creditors than U.S. law.  It certainly sounds like that is the case given this report of the arguments in the Ghana court. Perhaps sensing it has a losing legal argument, Argentina has begun a full-court diplomatic press on Ghana, even enlisting Chile to help out.

If Ghanian law allows a waiver of attachment to extend to all sovereign property, then it seems only fair that this case should be allowed to proceed regardless of what Argentine or Chilean diplomats say. I realize that the foreign creditors here are “vulture” investors who purchased the bonds from the original bondholders at a steep discount, but I don’t think that excuses Argentina from its undoubted legal liability.  Even if the ARA Libertad is not properly the subject of attachment, I can’t understand why folks continue to excuse Argentina’s deadbeat behavior.  Argentina plainly has the money to pay the judgment (the just expropriated their largest oil company, after all), and it is obligated to do so as a result of its own commitments. So why cry for Argentina?