by Sarthak Malhotra*
A key area of exposition both in Public International Law and Investment Arbitration is what constitutes an ‘act of state’. The Draft Articles on State Responsibility have been a ground-breaking work in codifying the rules of attribution of responsibility to the states. A related issue in this regard is the attribution of liability to a State in cases of breach of its treaty obligations by its political sub-divisions.
In many countries, numerous policy related issues are not handled by the Central Government. Instead, sub-divisions or states or local governments have been delegated the power to decide on numerous policy and operational issues. There is a federal form of governance in many countries like United States of America, India, Australia, Canada, Brazil albeit in different forms.
The implication of a federal form of government is that the political sub-divisions of a country exercise internal jurisdiction, both regulatory and otherwise, subject to the internal law. For instance, in India, the states reserve exclusive power in issues of inter alia public health and sanitation and taxes on lands and buildings. This means that a foreign investor may find itself pitted against a state government for reasons such as discrimination, expropriation and other such protections guaranteed to it under a BIT. Even though it is the Central Government which enters into treaty obligations and thus owes responsibility to the foreign investor, it may be possible that a state or a local government is in breach of the State’s obligation under the BITs. Could, in such a case, the Central Government be held responsible for the state government’s actions?
Article 25 of the ICSID Convention extends ICSID’s jurisdiction to legal disputes arising directly out of an investment between a Contracting State or any constituent subdivision or agency of a Contracting State designated to it by that State and a national of another Contracting State. Considering that ICSID’s jurisdiction is consent based, Article 25(3) mandates that the consent by a constituent subdivision or agency of a Contracting State shall require the approval of that State unless that State notifies that no such approval is required.
In Vivendi v. Argentina, Argentina relied on its federal system under its Constitution in arguing that the acts of officials of the Province of Tucumán could not be attributed to the federal government and, accordingly, the Tribunal lacked jurisdiction over the Claimant’s claims. Moreover, Argentina had not made any designation or filed any consent pursuant to abovementioned Article 25(3). The Tribunal rejected this contention and observed that under international law, and for purposes of jurisdiction of the Tribunal, it was well established that actions of a political subdivision of federal state are attributable to the central government and that it was clear that the internal constitutional structure of a country could not alter these obligations. The tribunal also took notice of the First report on State responsibility by Prof. James Crawford, the then Special Rapporteur on State Responsibility that referred to the “established principle” of the inability of a State federal in structure to “rely on the federal or decentralized character of its constitution to limit the scope of its international responsibilities.” This principle is also enshrined in Article 7 of Draft Articles of State Responsibility. In this regard, the Commentary to Draft articles states that international law does not permit a State to escape its international responsibilities by a mere process of internal subdivision. (Paragraph No. 7, Commentary) Therefore, Article 25(3) does not restrict the subject matter jurisdiction of the Tribunal; rather, it expands of the scope of ICSID arbitration ratione personae to include subdivisions and agencies of a Contracting State.
As noted above, the acts of a subdivision are attributable to the State in a treaty-based arbitration. Whether such acts are attributable to the State in a contract-based arbitration is debatable, given how a Central Government is not usually a signatory to a contract between the sub-division and the investor. (See Niko v. Bangladesh)
There are also numerous instances of NAFTA investment disputes involving local regulatory measures. In Metalclad v. Mexico, the tribunal presided by Professor Sir Elihu Lautherpacht made it clear that a State is internationally responsible for the acts of its organs and sub-national units. The Claimant was claiming violations of NAFTA Articles 1105 (“Minimum Standard of Treatment”) and 1110 (“Expropriation”) for the reason that the local municipal governments of SLP and Guadalcazar in Mexico denied a construction permit in an arbitrary and non-discriminatory manner.
Often termed as a quasi-federal constitution- a mixture of federal and unitary elements leaning more towards the latter, the Indian Constitution distributes power to legislate on different issues to both Central and state Governments. The Seventh Schedule to the Constitution lists down subjects on which the Central Government and the state Governments have the power to legislate on. The Concurrent list contains subject on which both levels of Government have concurrent jurisdiction. It is because of this distribution of legislative power that the states do not posses power to enter into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and their implementation. In this regard, Entry 14 of the Union List reads as follows: “14. Entering into treaties and agreements with foreign countries and implementing of treaties, agreements and conventions with foreign countries.”
Therefore, only the central government can enter into treaties and agreements such as Bilateral Investment Treaties with foreign countries. This may give rise to peculiar situation where a foreign investor is aggrieved by any policy/decision formulated by the state government, something in which, as per the constitutional design, the Central government would have had no role to play. The issue that then arises is whether a foreign investor could bring a claim against a state government’s actions? As discussed above, a government cannot escape responsibility in international law by hiding behind its internal federal structure.
Reference must also be made to Calcutta High Court’s judgment in Board of Trustees of the Port of Kolkata v. Louis Dreyfus Armatures SAS (2014 SCC OnLine Cal 17695), the first decision by an Indian court on a case arising out of an investment treaty arbitration. The Respondent had initiated an investment treaty claim under the 1997 India-France BIT, naming the Republic of India, the State of West Bengal and the Port Trust as respondents. The Petitioner was seeking an anti-arbitration injunction against the Respondent, prohibiting it from proceeding with an investment treaty claim in which the Petitioner was identified as a respondent. The High Court ordered the Respondent to not continue with the proceedings against the Port.
One of the Port’s main contentions was that it did not have an arbitration agreement with the Respondent and therefore it could not be made a party to the BIT arbitration. The Court took note of Respondent’s Notice of Claim under the BIT, which referred to Port as an organ of the Union of India and stated that although the Union of India would be responsible for the acts of Port, it does not necessarily make Port a party to the arbitration agreement under BIT. In arriving on this conclusion the High Court relied on the ruling of the English Court of Appeal decision in City of London v. Sancheti ((2009) 1 LLR 117) in which the court refused to rule that the Corporation of London was a party to the arbitration agreement notwithstanding the fact that under certain circumstance the State may be responsible under international law for the acts of one of its local authorities, or may have to take steps to redress wrongs committed by one of its local authorities.
This judgment underlines the importance of how the courts perceive political sub-constituent units being made party to a treaty based arbitration. As noted by the High Court, although the Central Government would be responsible for its political sub-constituent units, such units cannot be made parties to a treaty based arbitration for the mere reason that there is no arbitration agreement under the BITs between an investor and such units. Moreover, making such units party to the arbitration agreement is wholly unnecessary since a Government would be responsible for their actions in international law.
While the old Model India BIT was silent on the liability for actions of the political sub-divisions or sub-governments, the provisions of India’s new Model BIT seem to reflect the international jurisprudence. Article 4 lays down the standard of national treatment and extends the obligation to the Sub-national Governments. Article 1.2 defines ‘Sub-national Governments’ as a State Government or a Union Territory administration but does not include local governments. Moreover, Article 2.4, states that the BIT will not apply to any measure undertaken by a local government. Therefore, measures undertaken by urban local bodies, municipal corporations, village level governments, or enterprises owned or controlled by either of them are not covered under the new BIT. In absence of any substantive new treaty negotiations, it remains to be seen whether this carve out would be acceptable to other countries.
* Sarthak Malhotra, B.Com./LL.B. (Hons.), Gujarat National Law University, India.