A Meeting of the Two Worlds: The Human Rights Regime and International Investment Law – A Critique of Urbaser v. Argentina

Priya Garg*

A plethora of cases have been filed before investment tribunals regarding the issue of interaction or conflict between human rights obligations of investor or State and his or its, as the case may be, duties under international investment law (hereinafter, IIL).[1] The recent case of Urbaser v. Argentina only joins this already long queue. Critique of the case has been made before as well on this blog and it can be accessed here. There have been several other write ups as well analysing this verdict. The present post presents a fresh analysis on certain aspects or furthers the already made analysis of this judgement.

In this case, Claimants are two Spanish shareholders in the company which secured from the Argentinean government the contract for providing water and sewage services to the country’s low-income regions. When the agreement was entered into, only a limited percentage of the Argentinean inhabitants had access to drinking water and sewage services. Therefore, the primary objective behind the agreement was to expand these services in the concerned regions. Subsequently, Argentina faced financial emergency due to which its government began imposing restrictions and conditions upon the foreign investor at hand for securing benefits for its own residents. One of them was the restraint against cutting water and sewage supply of the households which have not paid their dues to the company. This pushed the company into losses, eventually resulting into its insolvency.

Therefore, the Claimant approached the investment tribunal contending the violation by Argentina of its Spain-Argentina BIT obligations. Argentina (Respondent) defended itself by arguing that its IIL obligation did not stand breached because it had acted in the manner which its human rights obligations under its domestic as well as international law required. Additionally, it counterclaimed that the Claimant’s failure to finish in time its pipe laying and other kind of work promised under its contract with Argentina amounted to the violation of the former’s obligations under contract law and the obligations of pact sunt servanda and good faith under international law. Moreover, it argued that since this non-performance of the contractual obligations by the investor denied the Argentinean residents of their basic right to water and sanitation, therefore the Claimant’s contractual breach simultaneously resulted in its violation of its human rights obligations under international law.

It is crucial to note, as will be made clear later as to why, that under the applicable law clause of their BIT, Spain and Argentina agreed that the investment tribunal shall arrive at its decision on the basis of the BIT Agreement and, where appropriate, on the basis of the other treaties between the Parties, the host nation’s domestic law and general principles of international law (Article IX(5), Argentina-Spain BIT (1991)). Hence, the presence of this applicable law clause, which allows the application of international law principles, ultimately made the Respondent take support of its international human rights obligations to defend itself as well as to develop a counterclaim against the Claimant.

Finally, the investment tribunal identified ‘Right to Water’ as a ‘human right’ under international law. It accepted the Respondent’s defence resting on its international human right obligations to conclude that the Respondent’s conduct did not amount to the breach of its IIL obligations. It however denied that the Claimant’s non-adherence to the contractual terms of expanding water and sewage network in the Argentinean regions has amounted to violation of its human rights obligations under international law. Very interestingly, the Tribunal nevertheless went on to state that the international human rights obligations can be ‘imposed’ ‘directly’ on private corporations (i.e. non-state actors) in relation to their conduct with the residents of the host nations. It relied on conventions and international documents such as the UDHR and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) among others to substantiate its assertion.

Firstly, this case contributes by allowing the host nation to successfully raise the defence of its international human rights obligations against the investor’s allegation of breach of the BIT obligations by the former. In earlier cases, in the similar context, such a defence was either not allowed or was not discussed or it did not influence the tribunal’s final verdict despite its acceptance as a principle.[2]

Secondly, it would be fascinating to notice that the tribunal at one place remarked that Argentina’s constitutional law obligations (which also contain its international law obligations because under the Argentinean Constitution, international law obligations override the country’s constitutional law provisions as well) will ride over its BIT obligations because the investor while undertaking its investment decision could have discovered by conducting its due diligence the existence of these prior obligations of the State of Argentina under its domestic law.[3] Making this kind of observation is also no mean feat for an investment tribunal.

This case is also significant because it stated that the international human rights obligations can be imposed directly on private corporations/investors. I begin with critiquing this stance of the investment tribunal.

Under international law, an entity can be a subject or an object of international law wherein objects are relatively more passive players than subjects. Though objects can be beneficiaries of or adherers to the international law provisions, nevertheless unlike subjects, they can neither directly bring an action nor can they be directly sued in relation to these provisions. Conventionally and as a matter of rule, States and international organisations are considered as subjects while non-state entities such as private corporations or individuals are not. On the basis of the distinction that exists between subjects and objects, obligations and rights under international law can be classified as primary/direct and secondary/indirect.  While obligations can be ‘imposed’ on objects directly, they can be ‘enforced’ only through the State governing these objects and not by directly suing the objects.

However, direct enforcement is possible by a State against the objects belonging to some another State if both of they agree upon creating a legal mechanism (such as constituting a tribunal) for this purpose. Unless this happens, direct enforcement of rights against objects is not legally correct. This is because creation of such an arrangement otherwise would undermine the States autonomy as they would then lose a share of their autonomy and power vis-à-vis their own objects if direct claims against the objects come to be permitted.

In the present case, Tribunal cited international documents and advanced other arguments based on logic[4] to state that human rights obligations such as the Right to Water can be ‘imposed’ directly on private corporations.[5] Even if this assertion and the approach behind arriving at it is considered to be correct, then also this does not ipso facto imply that such obligations can even be directly ‘enforced’ against private corporation by the host nation. As explained above, this direct ‘enforcement’ (and not mere direct ‘imposition’ of obligations) under international law against non-state actors can only happen when the concerned states have agreed to creating an international forum for such direct enforcement. Clearly and for obvious reasons, the states’ consent under their BIT to submit the disputes ‘relating to the BIT’ to the investment tribunal could not be reasonably read as their consent to vest this tribunal with the power to allow direct ‘enforcement’ of international law obligations against the ‘objects’ of international law. Hence, any attempt by the Tribunal, if undertaken at all, to directly ‘enforce’ international law obligations against the non-state actors (here, investor) would infringe upon the sovereignty of the State to which the investor belongs. Hence, this would be inappropriate under international law.

In the present case, though ultimately the Tribunal did not allow the direct ‘enforcement’ of any human right obligation[6] against the private entities and hence did not commit the error of law of the nature just highlighted above; nevertheless, its failure to clarify the difference that exists between direct ‘imposition’ and ‘enforcement’ of obligations existing under international law could lead to a misunderstood interpretation of the tribunal’s stance in this case, in future. Hence this clarification I just brought into notice becomes significant.

There were some loopholes even in the reasoning of the tribunal behind direct imposition of international law obligations on investor. The Tribunal explained that international law obligations, such as human rights obligations, can be directly imposed on investors (in addition to States) because under IIL, investors have the ‘right’ to directly obtain benefits out of the BIT provisions and that hence, it would be unjust to assert that no ‘duty’ can be directly fastened on them under the same regime.[7]

This is fallacious because under a BIT both the party nations ‘mutually’ share the rights and duties. Further, they simultaneously consent to allowing the investors of each other’s nation to carry out investment in the foreign soil on favourable terms. Hence, at very juncture itself, there is no prima facie or blatant asymmetry between the negotiating States and there is an element of consent with respect to the terms of a BIT. Infact, as a matter of fact, this is how BITs have been drafted since their inception. And it is an altogether different ‘policy’ question if we wish to make amendments in the pattern and the format of the BITs so as to impose substantive ‘obligations’ directly on private investors as well instead of imposing them only on the party nations while leaving the investors with only substantive ‘rights’ under BIT. Hence, if any country wishes to impose such direct obligations on private foreign investors they can incorporate a provision to that effect under their BITs. Resultantly, it is not in the realm of an adjudicatory body to suo moto extend the substantive law obligations to private investors when BIT is silent on this point as in the case in the present fact scenario.

Another fallacy in the tribunal’s reasoning is that it has stated its stance on several such issues relating to international human rights law regarding which serious and never-ending debates already exist. For instance, it is debatable if a) right to water is a standalone international human right, b) direct human right obligations have indeed been fastened on private corporations under different human right documents such as UDHR, ICESCR and if so, then what is the extent of such obligations, or c) the UDHR provision(s) imposing obligations on non-state actors fall under customary international law and is hence binding.

The latter point is crucial because UDHR by virtue of being a declaration and not a treaty would be otherwise not binding. Similarly, at another place, while explaining its stance that international human rights obligations can be imposed directly on private corporations, the tribunal reasoned that since as per the documents dealing with obligations of this kind human rights are for everyone, this implies that the obligation to not destroy them ought to be discharged by all, including non-state actors.[8] This kind of reasoning by the Tribunal has been termed beforehand as the ‘natural rights approach’ to understanding the human rights obligations. However the correctness of this approach is itself a matter of debate. Despite this, the tribunal did not delve into the discussion about the arguments and counter-arguments that already exist on each of these contentious matters. Instead, it only outrightly adopted one side of the argument(s) that already has been advanced in each of the debates without explaining why the other side of argument was not endorsed by it.[9] This lack of elaborate reasoning and discussion would make its analysis and verdict prone to being departed from.

Additionally, another problem in the tribunal’s reasoning is that certain portions of its judgement[10] may give an impression that it was trying to use the applicable law clause of the Spain-Argentina BIT, wherein it has been mentioned that the BIT dispute could be decided in accordance with international law provisions as well, to ‘create’ obligations for the private investor which the BIT did not even contain in the first place. This is because unlike in case of Morocco-Nigeria BIT, under the Spain-Argentina BIT, no human right obligation of any kind has been imposed on the investors.

Therefore, the phrase in the applicable law clause of the Spain-Argentina BIT allowing the use of international law provisions by the Tribunal implied that in cases of ambiguity in relation to the BIT provisions, other related areas of law such as the international law can be used to arrive at the correct interpretation by the Tribunal. Hence, the permission given under the applicable law clause to the Tribunal to resort to the international law provisions did not imply that the international law provisions can be used to create a completely new and standalone obligation without it being mentioned in the BIT.

However, I also acknowledge the concern that may exist when I state that a new human right obligation can be imposed by an investment tribunal on investor only when the obligation finds a mention in the BIT. It is that amidst the pressure to attract greater foreign investment, specifically so in case of underdeveloped and developing nations, countries can do away with insisting on incorporating such non-investment related provisions under their BIT. Nevertheless, existence of this concern does not ipso facto imply that investment tribunal begins utilizing its powers to ‘create’ human rights obligations for investors having their existence only under international law while the BIT is completely silent on this point. Therefore, this understanding of the Tribunal of the impact of the applicable law clause under the BIT allowing the reference to international law provisions requires correction.

As corollary to this concern, I have another reservation against the tribunal’s discussing in detail that if in the present case the investor had indeed violated the Argentinian residents’ human rights.[11] This was done to address the Respondent’s counterclaim that the Claimant has violated its international human rights obligations. However, it was not even required of the Tribunal to discuss the merits of this contention of the Respondent. This is because in the Spain-Argentina BIT, there is no umbrella clause. Hence, mere violation of any international human rights obligations without involving the contravention of a BIT provisions would not confer the jurisdiction on the investment tribunal to decide the issue of such contravention.

Finally, I discuss if the verdict actually marks a significant shift in the position of law under the IIL regime so far the interface between human rights and IIL obligations is concerned.

Upon reading this verdict there is likely to be a temptation to overestimate its contribution. Its selective reading is likely to make one believe that this case at least states, if not anything else as being significant, that international human rights obligations can be directly ‘imposed’ on private corporations.[12] This inference, if arrived at, would not be correct as this proposition comes alive only against a specific backdrop.

This is because first of all, in the verdict it has been explicitly stated that international human right obligations cannot be directly imposed on investors where their act does not amount to ‘destruction’ of existing human rights. Hence, ‘omission’ in stopping the ongoing destruction of human rights by someone else or taking positive steps for promotion of human rights of the host nation’s inhabitants would not attract claims of international human rights directly against investor by host nation. Therefore, where host state seeks to compel its foreign investor to perform its contractual obligation to expand water supply and sanitation network and to continue providing water supply and sanitation services to its inhabitants despite their non payment of bill by arguing that international human rights requires this, this judgement would be of no practical utility to the host nation.

Second, very interestingly, this case destroys its own contribution of stating that international law obligations can be imposed directly on corporations (i.e. non-State actors). This is because while awarding the final relief, the tribunal said that even if the investor was found to have been violating its human right obligation to provide water supply nevertheless this cannot allow the host nation to claim damages from him.[13] This is because such duty of reparation by way of damages against the investor (i.e. the aspect of the possibility of direct ‘enforcement’) does not exist under the Spain-Argentina BIT which is often the case with the BITs. Hence the practically useful aspect for the host nation of the tribunal’s stance that international human rights obligations can be directly ‘imposed’ on private corporations is only that this proposition can be used by any tribunal as a mitigating factor thereby reducing the quantum of damages that it was otherwise going to grant to private investor against the host State’s violation of its BIT obligations.

Alternatively, sometime in future this proposition may prod a host State to plead in cases of breach of international human rights obligations by private investor that the investor cannot approach the investment tribunal to claim remedy against the host State for its alleged violation of its BIT obligation. The application of the ‘clean hands doctrine’ should prevent the guilty foreign investor from seeking the tribunal’s assistance in getting its grievance resolved under BIT.

And it is only to this limited extent and for this narrow purpose, the Tribunal’s proposition imposing international human rights obligations directly on investors can be useful to the host nation.

Further, as a matter of conclusion I would also like to state given the several loopholes that exist in the approach of the tribunal in arriving at its verdict, there is uncertainty if this verdict, given all its flaws as highlighted by me in this paper, would at all be followed by investment tribunals ‘as it is’ in the future.


Priya Garg, Student at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.


[1] Marc Jacob, International Investment Agreements and Human Rights, INEF Research Paper Series Human Rights, Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development, 14, 03/2010, Institute for Development and Peace (2010).

[2] Tamar Meshel, Human Rights in Investor-State Arbitration: The Human Right to Water and Beyond, 6:2 Journal of International Dispute Settlement 9-17 (2015); Azurix Corp. v. Argentine Republic, ICSID Case No. ARB/01/12; Compañia de Aguas del Aconquija S.A. and Vivendi Universal S.A. v. Argentine Republic, ICSID Case No. ARB/97/3; Biwater v. Tanzania, ICSID Case No. ARB/05/22; ICSID Case No. ARB/04/4; Técnicas Medioambientales Tecmed S.A. v. United Mexican States, ICSID Case No. ARB (AF)/00/2; Marc Jacob, supra 1, at 16 (Another example of this conservative stand can be found in the Metalclad case where the tribunal did not view the public purpose exceptions favourably. According to the conventional view, only the effect of the impugned state measure on the property rights of an investor is relevant, the purpose of the state’s actions is not relevant. Hence, State’s obligations to pay compensation for expropriation can arise irrespective of the benefits that the measure could carry for the society).

[3] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶514 & 515.

[4] See Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1193 and 1994.

[5] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1193-1205.

[6] Even if it is ‘imposed’ these obligations existing under international law directly on private companies.

[7] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1194.

[8] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1199.

[9] See Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1182-1210.

[10] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1210 (For instance, when the Tribunal remarked that international human rights law might have been resorted to by it for abstaining the investor corporation from committing the act amounting to the destruction of the existing human rights under international law).

[11] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1193-1221.

[12] E.g., Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1193-1210.

[13] Urbaser S.A. and Consorcio de Aguas Bilbao Bizkaia, Bilbao Biskaia Ur Partzuergoa v. The Argentine Republic (Respondent), ICSID Case No. ARB/07/26, ¶1220.

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