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.

The Relationship between EU State Aid law and Obligations Arising under Investment Treaties

by Alexandros Catalin Bakos, LL.M 

I. Introduction:

In recent years, a series of debates have emerged in regard to the relationship between the EU State Aid law[1], on the one hand, and obligations arising under Investment Treaties (to which the EU is not a formal party)[2], on the other hand. Those debates manifest themselves at different levels and have powerful implications: firstly, they clarify the scope of State Aid law and its relationship with one of the most important fields – that of Investment Law. Secondly, they clarify – or complicate, depending on the vantage point from which one analyses the issue – the relationship between EU law and Public International Law[3]. And, thirdly, they raise questions of interpretation of EU law, especially from a historical interpretation point of view and from a teleological point of view – this is a great tool to understand the limits of EU law (the real limits, not the attempts to politically force an interpretation which extends the limits of EU law beyond what the Member States had envisioned initially).

Needless to say, the practical importance of the relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs can hardly be overstated. One can only look at the recent Micula affair[4] and the unenviable position in which Romania finds itself: on the one hand, it is faced with severe opposition from the European Commission as regards the observing of certain obligations arising under ITs (more specifically, the obligation to pay compensation to the Micula brothers as the final award against Romania dictates). On the other hand, Romania cannot outright ignore the legal framework set by the ITs (including the binding effect of the awards within this field) and show total disregard to the interests (and even rights) of investors.

As such, I endeavour in this study to provide an analysis of this relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs. I will focus my attention only on the first tier of this issue – the relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs themselves – and, as such, I will not analyse more general issues such the relationship between General Public International Law and EU law. Moreover, I will ignore general issues of interpretation of EU law. However, those issues will be touched upon where relevant for the analysis conducted through the present study.

II. Analysis:

Before starting, it should be stated that this analysis is composed of two parts. Firstly, I will analyse the relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs signed by EU Member States (intra-EU ITs) (1). Subsequently, I will analyse what the relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs when the ITs’ signatories are both from within the EU and from outside the EU (2).

  1. The relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs signed by EU Member States (intra-EU ITs):

(a) Scope of analysis:

The problem with intra-EU ITs and State Aid law seems to be that compensation given to investors by member states, as a result of an investment tribunal award, is considered illegal state aid, in cases such as the Micula one.[5] As such, the analysis should address the following: can an investment award rendered by an investment tribunal on the basis of an intra-EU IT be considered illegal State Aid? If so, when can it be considered as such (b)? Following, the next question should be: notwithstanding specific issues of whether enforcement of an investment arbitral award can be considered illegal State Aid, is it justified to ever argue for the termination of an intra-EU IT relying on State Aid law? In other words, can the intra-EU IT, by itself, be considered as violating EU rules on State Aid (c)?

(b) Can an investment award rendered by an investment tribunal on the basis of an intra-EU IT be considered illegal state aid? If so, when can it be considered as such?

In order to address this question, the first issue which must be clarified is what exactly is considered illegal state aid[6]: under Article 107 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union[7], state aid refers to any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings or the production of certain goods in so far as it affects trade between Member States.[8]

In other words, a number of four conditions must be met in order for a measure to be considered State aid: the State must intervene through that measure (and that measure must be imputable to the state[9]); the beneficiary of the intervention must be conferred an advantage; competition must be distorted; and the intervention must be likely to affect trade between member states.[10] As such, (when) is an investment award rendered by an arbitral tribunal on the basis of an intra-EU IT considered State Aid? In order to answer the question, a qualification of an investment award which leads to an obligation on the State to pay compensation to a wronged investor must be made (including its subsequent enforcement).[11] In simple terms, an award is a final judgement or decision, esp. one by an arbitrator or by a jury assessing damages.[12] Continuing, the enforcement of an award is the act or process of compelling compliance with a law, mandate, command, decree, or agreement.[13]

Of course, there is a question which arises, at this moment: supposing an arbitral tribunal renders an award against an EU member-state based on an intra-EU IT and the State enforces it, what is the legal basis for that? The answer can be found in the two most relied-on arbitration frameworks: the ICSID[14] Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States[15] which provides that the award given under its framework shall be binding on the parties[16] and the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards[17] which provides that each Contracting State shall recognize arbitral awards as binding and enforce them[18]. Thus, an obligation to respect and enforce arbitral awards arises for the state under Public International Law.[19]

This leads to an important question regarding State Aid law: is the condition that the measure must be imputable to the State met? The issue of imputable conduct has been defined by the CJEU as follows: this condition is met when the decisions of Member States by which, in pursuit of their own economic and social objectives, they give, by unilateral and autonomous decisions, resources to undertakings or other persons or procure for them advantages intended to encourage the attainment of the economic or social objectives sought.[20]

Can arbitral awards which are enforced as an obligation under Public International Law be considered as being unilateral and autonomous? Enforcement is, in the end, the latter part of a judicial proceeding. There is nothing autonomous or unilateral about it. And it would be artificial to separate the arbitral decision itself from the enforcement. Just because there is no central executive authority to enforce decisions rendered under Public International Law does not mean that the enforcement of those awards can be separated from the framework in which they arose: obligations owed to other legal subjects which, usually[21], have as their ultimate basis a treaty or customary relationship (a bilateral or multilateral relationship).

This view is shared by two other authors who base their approach on the fact that, when enforcing arbitral decisions, states do not act in their sovereign powers, but as agent(s) of the international community[22]. And there is undeniable merit to this view: that States, when undertaking obligations in their sovereign capacity, are giving up part of their sovereignty.[23] Moreover, even EU official bodies have constantly repeated this fact.[24] In other words, because States give up part of their sovereignty when undertaking legal obligations, they can no longer act unilaterally and autonomously within the fields and situations where they are under certain obligations.

Therefore, it can be concluded that, under EU law, as a rule, a state acting on the basis of an investor-state arbitration award, is not acting unilaterally and autonomously and, as such, the analysed measure regarding a possible issue of illegal State Aid cannot be imputable to the State – a condition for a measure to be considered State Aid.

In the following, I shall research whether there are exceptions to this rule and, as such, whether certain cases of compensating investors as a consequence of an arbitral award can be considered illegal State Aid. A practical case may offer better insights into this question.

Perhaps the most important case for the present analysis which could demonstrate whether there can exist exceptions to the rule that enforcement of arbitral awards rendered within the framework of ITs is not illegal State Aid is the Micula case. In short, this is what happened: the Micula brothers were handed, on the basis of a BIT (the Romanian – Swedish Bilateral Investment Treaty) certain custom duty exemptions. This happened before accession to the EU by Romania. Subsequently, close to the moment of accession (in 2004), Romania repealed the said exemptions, as a compliance mechanism with EU State Aid rules. On the basis of this measure, the Micula brothers challenged the measure in an arbitral tribunal under the relevant IT.

During proceedings, the EU Commission intervened as amicus curiae, effectively arguing against any reinstatement of the exemptions since that would amount to illegal State Aid. However, the arbitral tribunal ignored the Commission’s arguments and found against Romania, effectively ruling that a breach of the claimants’ legitimate expectations occurred, awarding damages.[25] As such, the claimants sought the enforcement of the arbitral decision in Romanian courts. They succeeded although the Commission had once again intervened looking to oppose the enforcement. This led the Commission to open a formal investigation into what they argued could constitute illegal State Aid. It was eventually decided by the Commission that the enforcement of the award (the payment of compensation) constituted illegal State Aid[26] and this bore upon Romania the obligation to recover the awarded compensation.[27] Moreover, the Micula brothers challenged the Commission’s decision in the CJEU, the case pending before the Court at the moment (case T-646/14).[28]

The entire Micula case complicates the matters. In order to better analyse the whole issue, two elements should be separated from the facts: on the one hand, there is the issue of the initial exemption, itself. Romania effectively considered the initial exemption to be illegal State Aid and, as a consequence, repealed it. Moreover, it seems that a formal analysis into the whole exemption leads to the same conclusion: this is an act imputable to the State, which offers the beneficiary an economic advantage, distorts competition and can affect trade between Member states. What complicates matters is that the relevant BIT, on the other hand, protects the legitimate expectations, not a specific exemption such as the custom duties exemption offered by Romania. Of course, once a specific benefit offered to the investors generated legitimate expectations, the standard of legitimate expectations set by the BIT becomes applicable and enforceable. However, there is a difference between the exemption and the obligation to guarantee legitimate expectations.

But the questions which have to be addressed now are: firstly, at the moment of the granting of the exemption, which was fairly close to the moment of Romania’s accession to the EU, were the exemptions granted by the Romanian State to be considered as having generated legitimate expectations? And secondly, what is the basis for ignoring the investment tribunal’s award, by the European Commission? I have already mentioned that I do not consider the EU Legal Regime as being totally autonomous. Thus, it is not separated from the framework of general Public International Law. It is just a system which, from a Public International Law point of view, is in (apparent) conflict with another system: that of Foreign Investment Law. Thus, which is to be considered as having primacy and why?

I will now address the first question: I argue that legitimate expectations indeed existed. I base my claim on two elements: firstly, the arbitral tribunal’s decision to award compensation to the Micula brothers, as a result of the repealing of the custom duties incentive scheme[29]. Secondly, it has been found in case-law regarding Foreign Investment that if a benefit awarded by a State to an investor was presented, by representations made to the investor, as having been in compliance with the legal requirements of the host state, the investment must be awarded the expected degree of protection (by respecting the awarded benefits on which the investor relied), even if, in reality it conflicts with the host state’s law.[30] It is true that in the previously-mentioned case the claimant relied on the principle of estoppel[31], which is a specific application of the legitimate expectations doctrine[32], but the principles applied in the Kardassopoulos v. Georgia case clarify the issue for the Micula case, as well.

Thus, it is not for the investor to bear the risk of an investment which is non-compliant with the legal rules of the host state, when the host state created the expectation of conformity. And this is what happened in the Micula case, because the investment had been protected for a few years, before the repealing of the incentive scheme, creating the proper expectations of legitimacy and legality. Therefore, legitimate expectations existed and were violated by Romania through its repealing act.

Subsequently, there is the issue of analysing the (apparent) conflict between obligations arising under BITs and ones arising under EU law. As mentioned earlier, those are two conflicting legal systems with no apparent hierarchy between them (neither the obligations under foreign investment law nor the ones under EU State Aid law can be considered jus cogens – norms of a peremptory character under International Law, from which no derogation is admitted; in other words, norms of a superior value). Therefore, because those norms are considered to be of equal value, the (apparent) conflict must be settled by relying on the principle of lex posterior derogat (legi) priori.[33]

Under this framework, it can be argued that the subsequent legal regime implemented by the EU State Aid legal regime would derogate from schemes of custom duties exemption such as the one presented earlier. Such exemptions constitute State Aid and since both Romania and Sweden are part of the EU Legal Regime, it can be considered that they have derogated from the possibility to implement such State Aid. As such, if there had been an obligation under the ITs to grant such an economic advantage to the investors, there could have been a real conflict between the ITs and the EU State Aid rules.

However, there did not exist any such obligation. And this is why I mentioned earlier that there was just an apparent conflict between those two international legal regimes – the EU legal regime and the Foreign Investment legal regime – and not a real one. The obligations under ITs are not conflicting with the EU State Aid Rules. What is conflicting is the effective benefit given by the Romanian State to the Micula brothers. While this is inherently linked to the IT, it is not identified with it. This may be a nuance, but it is an important one. It demonstrates that, at least as to the relationship between obligations arising under intra-EU ITs and EU State Aid rules there is no formal conflict.

Thus, this custom duties exemption is a different thing to the protection of legitimate expectations – the ones which are actually protected by the Romanian – Swedish BIT –, expectations which had been created before the EU laws prohibiting State Aid became effective. The legitimate expectations, as mentioned earlier, must be protected, even more so when the investors acted in good faith by relying on the representations of the Romanian officials.

Moreover, it has been proved that payment of compensation as a result of an investment tribunal’s award is not a form of State Aid, because it is neither unilateral nor autonomous, as needed for measure to be imputable to the State and, as such, to be considered State Aid. Therefore, the answer to the second question must be that, while the custom duties incentive scheme constitutes State Aid, the protection of legitimate expectations – through granting compensation –, especially when they were created at a moment when the conflicting rules on State Aid had not been effective, is not State Aid.

As such, there is no obligation for Romania, neither under International Law nor under EU law to recover the paid compensation. However, there are two authors who argue that a compensation rendered as an enforcement of an arbitration award under Foreign Investment Law can constitute a violation of Article 107 of the TFEU if the action leading to an obligation to compensate consists of repealing benefits that are themselves illegal state aid under Article 107 of the TFEU[34]. While I do agree, in principle, with the authors and the opinion of Advocate General Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer in Joined Cases C-346/03 and C-529/03 that if an entitlement to compensation is recognized, the damage cannot be regarded as being equal to the sum of amounts to be repaid, since this would constitute an indirect grant of the aid found to be illegal and incompatible with the common market[35], I cannot agree that this is applicable always, as an absolute rule.

The issue should be assessed on a case by case basis. The authors’ and the Advocate General’s statements do not take into account the legitimate expectations created to the investor. And from an Investment Law point of view, not only does the investor have locus standi under arbitral proceedings in Foreign Investment proceedings, but he is considered a subject of Public International Law[36]. As such, who is to make a hierarchy between the investor’s interests – the protection of his legitimate interests – and those of another subject of Public International Law, the EU – where the fundamental interest is that of the effectiveness of the Internal Market, through a proper competition framework which underpins the functional trade between the EU Member States? From a public international law perspective, the EC legal system remains a subsystem of international law.[37]

Thus, I find such a hierarchy between a subject of Public International Law within the Investment Law field, on the one hand, and the officials of the EU, on the other hand, arbitrary and in violation of basic principles of Public International Law. Moreover, as has been stated somewhere else regarding a similar issue of EU law: just because something is mentioned repeatedly does not turn it into reality.[38]

(c) Notwithstanding specific issues whether enforcement of an investment arbitration award can be considered illegal State Aid, is it justified to ever argue for the termination of an intra-EU IT on the basis of that treaty violating the rules on State Aid prohibition?

Can the intra-EU IT, by itself, be considered as violating EU rules on State Aid? The answer, in my view, is in the negative. This is because investment treaties govern issues such as what constitutes an investment[39], admission of investments[40] or what protection does an investor receive once an investment has been made[41]. In other words, such ITs govern the abstract rules applicable to all investments, not referring to a certain specific investment (of course, the specific investment will benefit from the protection, but on the basis of fitting the framework set by the treaty, not by other means). As such, there is no obligation, ipso jure, to grant an economic advantage which can be considered State Aid under EU rules. The choice to grant that advantage is an economic/ political choice of the State, not an obligation under ITs.

Therefore, it can be concluded that investment treaties are not prohibited under State Aid rules. However, this doesn’t render the issue of the validity of intra-EU Bilateral Investment Treaties obsolete. On the contrary, this is a different discussion, which takes into consideration the common trade policy set by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty[42] and various issues such as questions of jurisdiction of investment tribunals when the parties are an EU Member and an investor from another EU Member[43]. Nonetheless, this is a different issue, going beyond the scope of the present analysis.[44]

  1. What does the relationship between State Aid law and obligations arising under ITs entail when the ITs’ signatories are both from within the EU and from without the EU:

This issue should be easier to analyse, given all that has been presented until now. One of the main problems with the relationship between the obligations arising under intra-EU ITs, on the one hand, and EU State Aid rules, on the other hand, was that the parties to the TFEU were, at the same time, parties to those intra-EU ITs. This situation complicated matters because the conflict was noticeable (although from a different perspective than the one of this analysis – that of the validity of intra-EU ITs). In the case of EU State Aid rules and obligations arising under ITs concluded with third parties, the simple answer is that, because the third party is not a party to the EU, the rules on State Aid are not opposable to it.[45] This does not mean that the EU party granting benefits to an investor from a third State, after the TFEU became effective, is not liable for violations of Article 107. But, at the same time, this will not have any bearing on the earlier obligations arising under the ITs. In that case, if the EU member state decides to repeal any State Aid benefit, it may be in compliance with EU rules on State Aid, but its responsibility will be engaged under customary international law for violating a legal obligation arising under ITs. As a consequence, this breach of international obligations gives rise to an obligation of reparation[46], which does not constitute State Aid – as has been proven in the first part.

III. Conclusion:

The debate over whether there exists a conflict between the legal regime instituted by ITs (excluding those where the EU is a party), on the one hand, and the EU’s legal regime, on the other, is neither straightforward nor devoid of political and economic implications. Through this study, I have analysed a part of this debate: the relationship between ITs, on the one hand, and the legal regime of State Aid law, on the other. I demonstrated, firstly, that obligations specifically arising under ITs are not, by themselves, in conflict with State Aid rules, because there is no ratione materiae identity.

In this context, I made a differentiation between the measures which can be considered illegal State Aid and the ITs (and their provisions such as the ones related to the protection of legitimate expectations), which, although inherently linked to such measures (such as in the Micula case) are, in the end, different. Continuing, I demonstrated why something which tends to be considered an absolute truth – the supremacy of EU law – must be qualified in the international sphere: there is no legal basis under Public International Law to consider such a supremacy when the EU legal regime is in conflict with other international legal regimes. And, finally, I analysed the situation where an IT has signatories both from within and without the EU There, I made a clear differentiation between what can amount to liability of an EU State for violations of Article 107 TFEU and responsibility of the same State under the Customary Law on State Responsibility for violations of obligations contained within ITs. I have shown how an EU State can infringe both legal regimes, at the same time, and why the EU legal regime is relative (and opposable) to the EU States only.


[1]Hereinafter referred to as State Aid law

[2] Hereinafter referred to as IT

[3] For a critique of the concept of self-contained regimes (the idea that supranational or international regimes, such as the EU, are self-contained and cannot be influenced by Public International Law rules, such as Treaty Law or the Law on State Responsibility), see Bruno Simma and Dirk Pulkowski, Of Planets and the Universe: Self-Contained Regimes in International Law, The European Journal of International Law, Vol. 17, no. 3, 2006, hereinafter cited as Simma and Pulkowski. This aspect of mutual influence between those regimes is of utmost importance to the present study, since the starting premise of the present study is that there is a mutual link between semi-autonomous regimes – such as the EU –, on one hand, and general Public International Law rules, on the other. See, for the opposite view (that the EU Legal Regime is an autonomous legal order which is not influenced by Public International Law), Laurens Ankersmit, Is ISDS in EU Trade Agreements Legal under EU law?, https://www.iisd.org/itn/2016/02/29/is-isds-in-eu-trade-agreements-legal-under-eu-law-laurens-ankersmit/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:58)

[4] Kelyn Bacon, BIT arbitration awards and State aid – the Commission’s Micula decision, http://uksala.org/bit-arbitration-awards-and-state-aid-the-commissions-micula-decision/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:53)

[5] Christian Tietje, Clemens Wackernagel, Outlawing Compliance? – The Enforcement of intra-EU Investment Awards and EU State Aid law, Policy Papers on Transnational Economic Law, June 2014, p. 2, hereinafter cited as Tietje, Wackernagel

[6] Although a thorough analysis should begin with what constitutes an undertaking, under EU law – since those entities are the beneficiaries of state aid –, I will not undertake such an analysis, for reasons of brevity. Thus, the analysis is considered to refer, implicitly, to such elements.

[7] Hereinafter, referred to as The TFEU

[8] EC (European Commission): Communication from the Commission: Draft Commission Notice on the notion of State aid pursuant to Article 107 (1) TFEU, § 5, p. 4

[9] Tamás Kende, Arbitral Awards Classified as State Aid under European Union Law, ELTE Law Journal 2015/1, p. 40

[10] http://ec.europa.eu/competition/state_aid/overview/index_en.html (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 02:55)

[11] It is true that the situation varies from one case to the other, but I have decided to begin the analysis by qualifying an investment award in abstracto, in order to assess its legality under EU State Aid law and only afterwards I shall address specific cases.

[12] Bryan A. Garner (Editor in Chief), Black’s Law Dictionary. Ninth Edition, WEST. A Thomson Reuters business, St. Paul, MN, USA, 2009, p. 157

[13] Idem, p. 608

[14] The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes

[15] Hereinafter referred to as The ICSID Convention

[16] Article 53 of The ICSID Convention

[17] Hereinafter referred to as The New York Convention

[18] Article III of The New York Convention

[19] According to Article 26 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties, every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.

[20] Case 61/79, Amministrazione delle finanze del- lo Stato v Denkavit italiana [1980] ECR 1205, § 31

[21] Under Public International Law, the sources of legal obligations can include unilateral conduct or general principles of law, as well (see, for a comprehensive analysis, Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law. Seventh Edition, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2014, Chapter 3: Sources, pp. 49-91). But, for the present study, this is not important, since obligations arising in Investment Law are based mostly on investment treaties (more specifically, obligations to respect and enforce arbitral awards are the relevant ones for the present analysis), while those based on general principles of law cannot be considered to have appeared from a consensual relationship between the parties to a dispute in a specific dispute. Anyway, from a strictly technical point of view, no matter the source of obligation, the ensuing legal relationship is, in the end, always (at least) bilateral (the correlative existence of the right and of the duty): Arthur L. Corbin, Rights and Duties, 33 Yale Law Journal 501, 1923-1924, p. 502. But what is important, as a bottom-line, is that an arbitral award (and the subsequent obligation of enforcement) arose under a legal relationship outside the scope of the State’s discretionary powers.

[22] Tietje, Wackernagel, p. 7

[23] Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, The Function of Law in the International Community, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2011, pp. 3-4

[24] For example, see Case 26/62, Van Gend en Loos [1963], p. 2, § 2 and Case 6/64, Costa v. Enel [1964], p. 594

[25] Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula and others v. Romania: Final Award (ICSID Case No. ARB/05/20)

[26] Article 1 of Commission Decision (EU) 2015/1470 of 30 March 2015 on State aid […] implemented by Romania – Arbitral award Micula v. Romania of 11 December 2013

[27] All the factual information regarding the Micula affair mentioned so far has been gathered from: Kelyn Bacon, BIT arbitration awards and State aid – the Commission’s Micula decision, http://uksala.org/bit-arbitration-awards-and-state-aid-the-commissions-micula-decision/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:53)

[28] Volterra Fietta, Further attempts by the European Commission to eradicate intra-EU BITs, https://www.volterrafietta.com/further-attempts-by-the-european-commission-to-eradicate-intra-eu-bits/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:54)

[29] Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula and others v. Romania: Final Award (ICSID Case No. ARB/05/20)

[30] Ioannis Kardassopoulos v. Georgia: Decision on Jurisdiction (ICSID Case no. ARB/05/18, §§ 191-192)

[31] Andreas Kulick, About the Order of Cart and Horse, Among Other Things: Estoppel in the Jurisprudence of International Investment Arbitration Tribunals, The European Journal of International Law, Vol. 27, no. 1, p. 119

[32] I will not get into a detailed discussion of what constitutes estoppel and what is the difference between it and other institutions, such as the one of legitimate expectations. For a detailed analysis of estoppel in International Law and its application by the International Court of Justice, see Alexander Ovchar, Estoppel in the Jurisprudence of the ICJ. A principle promoting stability threatens to undermine it, Bond Law Review, Volume 21, Issue 1.

[33] http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195369380.001.0001/acref-9780195369380-e-1282 (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:55)

[34] Tietje, Wackernagel, p. 7

[35] Joined  Cases C-346/03 and C-529/03. Opinion of Advocate General Ruiz-Jarabo Colomier, delivered on 28 April 2005, § 198

[36] See Robert McCorquodale, The Individual and the International Law Legal System, in Malcolm D. Evans (ed.), International Law. First Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2003, pp. 299, 311-314 and 321-322

[37] Simma and Pulkowski, p. 516

[38] Ibid.

[39] Matthias Herdegen, Principles of International Economic Law. Second Edition, Oxford University Press,  Oxford, United Kingdom, 2016, pp. 444-446

[40] Idem, pp. 448-450

[41] Idem, pp. 448-477

[42] Francesco Montanaro and Sophia Paulini, United in Mixity? The Future of the EU Common Commercial Policy in light of the CJEU’s recent case law, EJIL: Talk! Blog, https://www.ejiltalk.org/united-in-mixity-the-future-of-the-eu-common-commercial-policy-in-light-of-the-cjeus-recent-case-law/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:55)

[43] Emanuela Matei, The love-hate story of arbitral jurisdiction  over claims against states in the EU, EFILA Blog, https://efilablog.org/2016/10/25/the-love-hate-story-of-arbitral-jurisdiction-over-claims-against-states-in-the-eu/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:56)

[44] For an analysis of this aspect, see: Nikos Lavranos, The Lack of Any Legal Conflict Between EU law and intra-EU BITs/ECT Disputes, EFILA Blog, 25 February 2016, https://efilablog.org/2016/02/25/the-lack-of-any-legal-conflict-between-eu-law-and-intra-eu-bitsect-disputes/ (last visited on 10/02/2018, at 20:55)

[45] The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties provides, in Article 30 (3.) (b) that when the parties to a later treaty (as is the case when various ITs had existed before the TFEU became effective) do not include all the parties to the earlier one […] as between a State party to both treaties and a State Party to only one of the treaties, the treaty to which both States are parties governs their mutual rights and obligations.

[46] See Article 31 of the ILC Articles on State Responsibility

Profit vs. Sustainability: How to pursue a sustainable investment

 

Benedetta Cappiello*

 

It seems that nowadays the debate on fragmentation of international law is not yet ready to reach a prompt solution. On the contrary, every and each occasion, even at the jurisprudential level, seems a good one to offer some new reflections, in brief or at length, on the reason why international law results fragmented within itself and, in parallel, on the instruments suitable to solve that phenomenon.

True the above, we deem, on the contrary, that reference to fragmentation should be avoided, given that the so labeled phenomenon should instead be referred with other concepts such as that of expansion of international law. Today we are indeed witnessing the raise of many different sub-systems of law, almost one for each subject, which “ask” for it. This mean that next or below international law of general character there is a multitude of sub-systems, formed by norms of special character. As such, they reflect the blooming of new needs, deserving a normative qualification, in term of rights and obligations. From this, it derives the raise of conflicts among norms (and values empowered by them), of general and special character, or of norms coming from different sub-systems.

In this respect, our assumption is that sub-systems of law are not completely autonomous. Neither from each other, nor from that of general international law (in which, in case of failure, all fall back to). This interconnection seems to make useless any search for the prevalence of a norm over the other; contrarily, it renders strong the need to find a way to integrate and balance among provisions which, while pursuing opposite aim, result contemporarily binding and applicable to a given situation.

This scenario seems to be well mirrored by the on-going struggle involving norms coming from two sub-systems of law apparently pursuing conflicting interest.

Namely, reference is made to international (and European) investment law and the group of norms empowering the principle of sustainable development (that concept appeared for the very first time in 1967, to later becoming a principle of international law endorsed in binding, or non-binding, normative provisions).

At first sight, the two groups of norms protect opposite interests: investment law has, indeed, been framed in order to guarantee investors’ (economic) rights, thus allowing them to pursue their activity in the most profitable way. The second group of norms aim, instead, to drive economic activity in a sustainable way, thus in respect of all fundamental and social rights involved (such as environment, labor rights, public health).

According to the praxis, host State – especially when developing country – has accepted foreign investment at almost any condition, so to increase investment flow within itself and boost its economy. Accordingly, host State has never asked foreign investor for any special behavior nor it has imposed upon him obligations to contribute to its development. By and large, this has meant investment only with long lasting protection and economic guarantee. Consequently, host State has for long time refused to higher its standard of protection of fundamental right, so to align them to the international ones.

Such an imbalanced relation has been for decades legitimized at the normative level (multilateral and bilateral agreements) and well mirrored by arbitral decision, which have always avoided any chance to reason on (alleged) violation perpetrated by investors against host State’s development. It is enough to remember that, the attempt made in Salini (¶57) case law was not pursued by further jurisprudential praxis.

Despite this, it seems that, in the last decade, a wide spread consensus has evolved on the need to guarantee sustainable development.

The question of this contribution is therefore, whether and how it is possible to pursue a sustainable investment.

A first attempt to remodeled the relation investment law-sustainable development, date back to 2008 when Prof. J. Ruggie, by that time UN SG Special Representative on the issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other business enterprises, law made a public statement related to the introduction of sustainable development within investment law as a binding concept (§ 12 Protect, Respect, Remedy).

Since then, States have started various tools to integrate SD concerns within FDI sources of law. The relative new born principle on sustainable development has thus started to be empowered also by international investment law, so to render it a binding obligation.

This change seems to have been driven at both political and normative level, where obligations have started to be imposed also on foreign investors, namely if juridical persons (small, medium or multinational enterprises).

To prove this, an excursus through the most recent normative and arbitral praxis is required.

As regard the normative level, it seems on-going a deep reshape of investment treaties (BITs and IIAs) which, for themselves, are not necessarily treacherous legal products. In fact, as any other treaties, they are simply instruments at the disposal of contracting parties to legally protect their respective interests. What really matters is their content, which obviously depends on agendas, choices and concessions of the parties. Consequently, investment agreements have started to change nature, including several innovative provisions able to recalibrate the legal protection of all stakeholders’ interests (host State along foreign investors). This step forward can be expected to enhance the chances for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable investments.

A clear, and virtuous example, comes from the Morocco and Nigeria BIT, which has increased host State’s right to regulate and it has imposed obligation of conduct upon foreign investors. Namely, host State provisions, enacted to pursue a S.D. goal, are legitimate; conversely, foreign investors have to pursue their activity contributing to host State’ sustainable development.

Sustainable Development’ goals are thus not anymore declaration of principle embedded in preambles (thus serving as mere interpretative tools), but they are becoming legally binding provision included right in the text, along with all other clauses on rights and obligations. Parties to the above-mentioned BIT have shown confidence that such an instrument can offer investors solid protection, without compromising on host State’s rights or on social values.

In parallel, also the European Union seems to have endorsed a more sustainable oriented approach, at both the internal and external level (after all, art. 2.5 and art. 21 TFEU oblige the EU to pursue its foreign relation respecting also sustainable development).

As regard the internal level, the European Court of justice, in its Opinion 2/15, found that that the EU has exclusive competence to enter any international agreement including commitments on all aspects of intellectual property and also those concerning sustainable development and environmental protection: all are indeed sufficiently linked to the objective of freeing trade.

At the international level, EU is assuming a leading role in “the sustainability cause”: for instance, it was instrumental in shaping Agenda 2030 and, along with member States, it is fully committed to implementing it and its Sustainable Development Goals into EU policies. This has certainly induced EU negotiator to include provision on SD’ goals in the most recent treaties.

As regard jurisprudential level, it seems that arbitrators have started to allow Respondent-host State’ counterclaims raised versus Claimant-foreign investor for its alleged violation of fundamental rights (Blusun v. Argentina). Besides, it seems spreading the practice to start proceeding against corporations which have allegedly acted, infringing fundamental rights.

Given the above, two last doubt raises.

The first regards the allocation of responsibility: who respond for infringement of a SD obligation? Our tenet is that the same fact could potentially raise joint and several responsibilities of both host State and foreign investor.

Investor responds where international agreement, or contracts, binding the parties involved, include specific obligations on SD. Host State is responsible where it has bound it-self with international treaties (Basel Convention, 1989, Kyoto protocol, 1997; Paris Agreement, 2016) or other instruments (Protocol of finance and investment binding States parties to South African Development Community and requiring them to pursue their investment relations according to SD principle) providing for obligations on SD.

The second doubt is strictly related to the first one: if host State can be held responsible for infringement of a SD provision, any action pursued to align itself to that latter (or other international standard), should not engage State responsibility (in Gabcikovo-Nagymaros, Respondent State casted doubt upon whether “ecological necessity” or “ecological risk” could […] constitute a circumstance precluding the wrongfulness of an act). Some have qualified that circumstance as State of necessity, but this seems of limited practical application. It should, instead, be viewed as exercise of sovereign power in the public interest. Given this, and provided that the measure adopted is necessary to the aim pursued, the act is legitimate and the compensation due should be defined according to proportionality test, as endorsed by the ECtHR.

To conclude, it seems that at both normative and jurisprudential level there is a widespread consensus aimed at legitimizing a more balanced investment relation, leading to a sustainable investment.

The better avenue for a State seeking to further its SD’ goal, is to harmonize them with its investment obligations, rather than to seek outright relief from investment obligations.


Benedetta Cappiello, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy.

 

Call for Contributions – EFILA Blog

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Given the present debate – on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) – surrounding the future of ISDS and bilateral investment treaties, the EFILA Blog editorial board believes that a veritable dialogue must take place, allowing all arguments to be heard and all diverging positions to be defended. Discussing the status of an international regime should take place at the very center of the legal community itself and not be left as a mere political bargaining chip.

For these reasons, EFILA offers its Blog as a space for open dialogue, welcoming any contribution that pertains to the field of of international (investment) law and arbitration, EU law and public policy, as well as the dynamics of these multiple legal, political and economic spheres. Moreover, the new impetus of signing regional free trade agreements in Asia-Pacific is of utmost interest for the existing dialogue, showing how other parts of the world advance their investment cooperation despite this troubled global background.

If you are interested in submitting any material to the EFILA Blog, please contact our Managing Editor, Horia Ciurtin, at the following e-mail address: h.ciurtin@efila.org

The first steps towards a Multilateral Investment Court (MIC)

by Prof. Nikos Lavranos, Secretary-General of EFILA

 

On the instigation of the EU, the UNCITRAL Commission adopted a broad mandate for a Working Group to:

  • identify and consider concerns regarding ISDS;
  • consider whether reforms are desirable in light of the identified concerns;
  • if the Working Group were to conclude that reform is desirable, to develop and recommend any relevant solutions;

This mandate was adopted after a heated debate in which the USA and Japan were the strongest opponents to such a mandate, while the EU, Canada, Mauritius, South Africa and several Latin American countries vigorously pushed for such a mandate.

The debate reflected the different views as to whether, and if so, to what extent the ISDS system needs to be reformed or even preferably replaced by a permanent multilateral investment court (MIC).

Eventually, all present states accepted to give UNCITRAL such a broad mandate.

Although, the proponents of this mandate repeatedly reassured each other that the outcome of the work of the UNCITRAL Working Group should not be prejudged and that all options should be on the table, it was obvious for everybody in the room that the only outcome will be the creation of the MIC.

Indeed, the template for the negotiation process and draft text for the MIC will replicate the ‘Mauritius Convention approach’, which was successfully adopted for the UNCITRAL Transparency Rules for investment treaty arbitrations adopted in 2014 and which will enter into force in October 2017. A detailed report by Gabrielle Kaufman-Kohler and Michele Potestà in which they describe how the Mauritius Convention approach could serve as a model for creating the MIC provided the basis for the discussion and the eventual adoption of the mandate.

The ‘Mauritius Convention approach’ allowed for an extraordinarily fast negotiation process and contains a flexible opt-in menu for the contracting parties. Accordingly, states are free to select whether or not the UNCITRAL Transparency Rules will also apply for disputes initiated under pre-existing BITs or only for BITs which entered into force after the Transparency Rules become applicable. In addition, the unusual low requirement of only 3 ratifications for the entering into force of the Mauritius Convention is another feature, which allows for turning a negotiated text into a formally applicable legal instrument.

Considering the fact that work on the MIC is slated to start already next November and assuming that the ‘Mauritius Convention approach is’ followed, a draft text for the MIC could be on the table by the end of 2018, so that the first signatures could be put under such a text in 2019, making the MIC a reality by 2020.

In sum, the EU has successfully managed to instrumentalize UNCITRAL for its MIC idea.

Only time will tell how much traction there actually will be among states for creating the MIC.

The debate on the mandate showed that there is not yet consensus for the MIC throughout the world. While the EU, most EU Member States, Canada, some Latin American countries and South Africa seem very eager to create the MIC, in the Asian and Pacific region there seemed to be considerably less appetite. In particular, Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, NZ and Australia, but also the USA were much more cautious and less convinced about the urgent need to replace the current ISDS system with something completely new, which may very well create new legal and policy problems.

 

Before the Other Shoe Drops (II): The First ICSID Final Award in the Spanish Renewable Energy Arbitration Saga Finds for the Investors – Crossing the Line?

by Clifford J. Hendel, Araoz & Rueda Abogados

The following updates the author’s entry September 2015 in this blog entitled “Before the Other Shoe Drops: The Current State of Renewable Energy Arbitration in Spain.” 

In recent years, some 30 cases have been filed — under SCC, UNCITRAL and (principally) ICSID rules — alleging that Spain breached the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) when it altered the regulatory framework governing investments in the renewable energy sector.

During the course of 2016, final awards were issued in favor of Spain in two cases challenging certain  regulatory changes in the photovoltaic sector heard under the auspices of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce (SCC).  Now, in a landmark award issued on 4 May 2017, an ICSID tribunal has found in favor of the claimant investors in a case challenging a series of more recent changes impacting the thermo-solar sector.

The Tribunal awarded damages of € 128 million plus interest to investors Eiser Infrastructure Ltd of the UK and its subsidiary Energia Solar Luxembourg sarl of Luxembourg for the loss in value of their investments in three concentrated solar power (CSP) thermosolar plants.

Issued in both English and Spanish versions, only the Spanish version is to date available on the Internet.

Below is a limited summary of the award, together with a few preliminary observations about its possible impact on the resolution of the future cases, many of which are fast-approaching decision.

Background

In the early years of this century, Spain’s then-government designed a Renewable Energy Plan based on a very generous incentive system for investments in the production of electricity from renewable energies. As a result, sunny Spain quickly became a world leader in renewable energy. However, the opening of a gaping “tariff deficit” (excess of subsidies paid to producers and revenues from the sale of energy to consumers), exacerbated by the consequences of the financial crisis, led to a series of aggressive and ultimately effective measures aimed to cutback on the incentive system and erase the tariff deficit.

Starting in 2012 the regulatory changes became particularly stringent. Significantly, in December 2012, Spain imposed a 7% tax on electricity production and eliminated certain solar power subsidies. In the course of 2013, new regulations eliminated the tariff regulations set out in Decree 661/2007 which provided stability in electricity tariffs and a “reasonable return” on investment. Finally, in 2014, a new regime governing renewable energy was established, which calculated a reasonable rate of return for investors based on the hypothetical standard operating costs of hypothetical ‘efficient’ solar energy plants – standards to which Claimants’ plants did not conform.

Claimants argued that, taken together, these regulatory changes amounted to ‘complete value destruction’ of their investment, as the plants’ revenue fell below what was required to cover financing and operating costs or provide a return on investment, and their Spanish operating companies were forced into debt rescheduling negotiations with their lenders.

Certain Jurisdictional Matters

Unlike many of the series of cases, the Eiser case was not bifurcated into separate jurisdictional and merits phases. The award accordingly includes extensive discussion of the various jurisdictional objections that Spain had raised.

Of particular relevance is the Tribunal’s rejection of the contention that the ECT’s investor-state mechanism does not apply to intra-EU disputes. Citing similar conclusions reached by an ICSID panel in a 2016 jurisdictional ruling in the RREEF matter which had found its way to the public domain and in the SCC Charanne case mentioned below, the Tribunal found unavailing Spain’s argument that there was an implicit exception in case of intra-EU disputes, suggesting that if it had been the intent of the treaty’s drafters to exclude intra-EU disputes, this would have been made clear in the text, rather than being a “trap for the unwary”.  Interestingly, the Tribunal declined to admit to the file an amicus curiae brief presented by the EU Commission two months before the merits hearing, since the Commission refused to provide the costs undertaking which the Tribunal had deemed appropriate in light of the eleventh-hour presentation of the submission.

On the other hand, the Tribunal granted Spain’s ECT’s tax exception objection to jurisdiction, to the effect that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction to determine whether the 7% energy tax breached the treaty. Claimants, relying on the Yukos case, had argued that the tax was a bad faith alternative to reducing the subsidies, and thus was not entitled to the treaty’s tax exception. However, the Tribunal was not prepared to find bad faith, and thus applied the exception, observing that the exercise of the sovereign’s taxing power should not be questioned lightly, and that the facts did not at all suggest a patter of conduct designed to destroy Claimants or their investment (such as found by the Yukos panel in that case).

In an interesting obiter, the Tribunal observed (twice) that any damages that might accrue to a CSP investment due to the 7% tax would be substantially limited, if not entirely eliminated, since Spain had decided to include this charge as an indemnifiable cost.

The Tribunal also granted Spain’s objection based on the ECT’s requirement that claims alleging expropriation by reason of taxes be submitted first to the tax authorities.

The remaining jurisdictional objections were rejected, in rather short shrift, i.e, those based on (i) the supposed lack of standing of Claimants due to their being funds who only channeled capital of participants/limited partners, (ii) the supposed inability of shareholders to bring claims for damages actually incurred by participated entities even where the claim is for the reduction in value of the shareholding and (iii) the supposed failure to observe the ECT’s cooling-off period in respect of certain of the regulatory changes challenged (the Tribunal characterizing as unreasonable and inefficient Spain’s suggestion that each new regulatory measure in the challenged series be the subject of a new cooling-off period requiring a new trigger letter, when in reality the case involved a single dispute arising from the claim that by a series of measures, Spain modified in a fundamental way the economic regime for Claimants’ CSP projects in violation of the ECT).

Merits: Focus on FET as a guaranty of stability and protection against fundamental regulatory changes which fail to take into account circumstances of existing investments; “Crossing the line”

Citing judicial and financial economy (values noted by the Tribunal in a variety of contexts throughout the award), he Tribunal focused its analysis on Claimants’ arguments based on fair and equitable treatment (FET) under Article 10(1) of the ECT, considering this the most adequate benchmark under which to evaluate the measures, and thus not specifically and directly addressing the other claims of expropriation, unreasonable measures or breach of the ECT’s umbrella clause.

Recognizing the inherent right of states to regulate, and thus rejecting any suggestion of an absolute right to regulatory stability, the Tribunal concluded that the FET clause of the ECT protected against “fundamental” changes in a manner that failed to take account of the circumstances of existing investments made in reliance on the prior regime and that led to “unprecedented”, “totally different” regulatory regimes.

Significantly, the Tribunal distinguished the case from the February 2016 Charanne  award which rejected an investor’s claims in an SCC matter challenging regulations promulgated in 2010, affirming in forceful language that the factual and legal situations in the two cases were “fundamentally different,” the measures challenged in Charanne having only marginally decreased solar investments’ profitability, being “much less dramatic” and “much less extensive” than those challenged in Eiser, which created “a totally new regulatory focus,” and were applied in a manner which “eliminated the financial bases” of existing investments.

The consequences to the Claimants of the “total and unreasonable” change in the regulatory regime was the virtual destruction of their investment. The Tribunal accordingly concluded that the changes violated the FET clause.

The core of the Tribunal’s analysis is set out in paragraphs 362 and 363 of the award. Interestingly, the award circles back and restates the analysis once and again thereafter.  The following excerpts (in the author’s “reverse-engineered” translation from the Spanish version of the award which is circulating on the internet to the English in which it was surely drafted) give a good flavor:

362. “…The question presented is to what extent treaty protections, in particular the obligation under the ECT to provide investors fair and equitable treatment, can be invoked and give rise to a right of compensation as a result of the exercise of the recognized right of a State to regulate.”

363. “….[T]he Tribunal finds that Respondent’s obligation under the ECT to provide fair and equitable treatment to investors protects them from a fundamental change in the regulatory regime in a manner which does not take into account the circumstances of the existing investment made on the basis of the prior regime. The ECT does not prohibit Spain from making appropriate changes in the regulatory regime of RD 661/2007….But the ECT does protect investors against the total and unreasonable changes experienced here.”

352.“Taking into account the context, object and aim of the ECT, the Tribunal concludes that the obligation to provide fair and equitable treatment established by Article 10(1) necessarily implies an obligation to provide fundamental stability in the essential characteristics of the legal regime on which investors relied in making long-term investments. This does not mean that regulatory regimes cannot evolve. Clearly they can….[but] they may not be so radically changed that they deny investors who made investments on the basis of such regimes of the value of their investment.”

387. “Claimants could not reasonably expect that there would be no change in the regime of RD 661/2007 over the course of three or four decades. As with any other regulated investment, they must have anticipated that there would be changes over time. Nonetheless, Article 10(1) of the ECT gave them the right to expect that Spain would not modify, in a drastic and abrupt manner, the regime on which their investment depended, in a manner which destoyed its value. But this was the result …..As expressed in Parkerings: ‘any businessman or investor knows that laws will evolve over time. What is prohibited, however, is for the State to act unfairly, unreasonably or inequitably in the exercise of its legislative power.’”

418. “….The derogation of RD 661/2007 by Respondent, and its decision to apply a completely new method to reduce the remuneration of Claimants’ existing plants, denied them of essentially the entire value of their investment. Doing so violated Respondent’s obligation to provide fair and equitable treatment.”

458. “The Tribunal considers that Respondent ‘crossed the line’ and violated the obligation to provide fair and equitable treatment in June 2014 when the prior regulatory regime was definitively replaced by a completely new regime….”

The Tribunal rejected Spain’s attempt to put on record the July 2016 award of another SCC tribunal in the Isolux case, a kind of sister-case to Charanne, since that decision (unlike Charanne, which Spain’s Energy Ministry published on its website) is and remains confidential.  It is understood that Spain prevailed on the merits in Isolux (as in Charanne, over a dissenting opinion) in relation to the measures at issue in Eiser. But the Tribunal refused to accept the decision on record due to its confidentiality, chastising Spain for having communicated the award to the Tribunal on an ex parte basis.

DCF, damages and costs

In calculating damages for this breach, the Tribunal accepted the investors’ suggestion to use a discounted cash-flow (DCF) analysis. Applied from June 2014 when the new regulatory regime took full force, the Tribunal awarded €128 million in lost profits as per claimants’ experts’ calculations, together with pre-award interest at Spain’s borrowing rate, 2.07%, compounded monthly from the June 2014 date of breach, and post-award interest at 2.5%, also compounded monthly.

The Tribunal rejected for insufficient evidence claims for (a) Euros 68 million in additional damages on the basis of an asserted useful life of 40 years (rather than 25 years) and (b) Euros 88 million to gross up the requested compensation so as to neutralize the eventual tax consequences of an award in favor of Claimants, and further rejected (c) a claim for Euros 13 million for losses incurred prior to the June 2014 changes which the Tribunal found is when Respondent had actually “crossed the line.”

In a communication posted on its website shortly after the award was issued, the Spanish Ministry of Energy highlighted the fact that Claimants had recovered less than half of what they had sought. However, from the nature of the heads of damages that were rejected, and the limited time and energy apparently devoted to their prosecution, it would seem clear that Claimants prevailed on their key damage claim.

Finally, the Tribunal left each party to bear its own costs.

Some Preliminary Observations

The Eiser award has been circulating on the Internet only since 8 May and only in its Spanish language version. It is 175 pages long and full analysis will require a more careful reading, hopefully of the English “original” text.

Yet some preliminary reactions can be offered:

  1. As in the SCC cases decided last year favorably to Spain on the merits (Charanne and Isolux), albeit only by majority decision and with forceful dissents, Spain’s principal jurisdictional arguments – including the intra-EU objection noted above — were largely rejected. Inasmuch as it would appear that none of the cases to date has been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, it can probably be expected that this trend will hold, and future cases may be more likely to be heard without bifurcation, and thus decided more expeditiously.
  2. The Eiser Tribunal’s common-sensical (and perhaps, common-lawyerly, since all of its members are common-law trained professionals) and elegant discussion of the limits of the right to regulate and its application in the specific context of the facts and circumstances of the case (distinguishing clearly and effectively the factual and legal matrices involving its application in the context of Charanne) could prove to be a useful roadmap to future panels reviewing the same regulatory changes in the context of similarly-situated (or not similarly-situated) investors and investments.
  3. The Isolux award, if and when it becomes public, will be closely studied to assess its “fit” into the competing Charanne and Eiser conclusions and its relevance to the future cases.
  4. The Eiser award contains a number of comments and characterizations which could be read as being rather critical of Spain, not only regarding the merits or demerits of the underlying regulatory actions as mentioned above (the award cites excerpts from reports of various Spanish public entities which were critical of the regulation the draft of which had been submitted for their review), but also its litigation posture (e.g., insisting on bifurcation but refusing to contemplate any precedential or “test case” value of a decision on jurisdiction) and procedural conduct (e.g., the ex parte communication mentioned above).
  5. Of course, while there is no hierarchy in international arbitration and thus no doctrine of precedent or binding jurisprudence, Tribunals deciding cases raising issues which have been addressed by other Tribunals will generally take interest in the prior findings and reasoning, especially to the extent they appear well-reasoned and well-structured. The Eiser award (which itself relied on Charanne and RREEF where it considered it appropriate to do so) appears on first read to be well-reasoned and well-structured and may thus have material weight in the upcoming awards. By the same token, it may stimulate international investors who have been sitting on the sidelines these past few years to file claims.
  6. Whether or not Eiser will prove to be a game-changer in the Spanish renewable energy saga after the two SCC awards issued in 2016 (Charanne and Isolux) appeared to give the overall advantage to Spain) remains to be seen.

Stay tuned: the game is far from over…..

Norton Rose Fulbright and EFILA: Investor-State Disputes, What Will Change Post-Brexit?

by Cara Dowling, Norton Rose Fulbright (London)*

On Wednesday 29th March 2017, the UK government triggered Article 50 formally beginning the process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union. On that historic day, the London office of Norton Rose Fulbright and EFILA co-hosted a panel discussion with distinguished experts from industry, trade policy and investment treaty arbitration to discuss the impact of Brexit.

Deborah Ruff, international arbitration Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright chaired the discussion, which centred on such topics as what would change post-Brexit for trade, foreign direct investment and investor-state dispute settlement. The panel was comprised of Chris Southworth, Secretary General of the ICC UK, Norah Gallagher, Academic Director, Energy and Natural Resources Law Institute and EFILA board member, Ali Malek QC of 3 Verulam Buildings, and Milagros Miranda Rojas, special advisor on WTO and International Trade, Norton Rose Fulbright.

The evening quickly turned into a lively and engaged discussion amongst the panellists each of whom offered a unique perspective on the impact of Brexit from their respective fields of expertise. Members of the audience, many of whom hailed from different European countries and/or represented companies with a global or pan-European footprint, also passionately engaged with the panel, offering their own thoughts on both the issues and possible outcomes.

There was a general consensus that negotiating Brexit and future trade deals between the EU and UK would be complex not least because negotiating positions will be influenced by factors beyond simple economic considerations. The mood however was generally positive with all expressing a hope for constructive discourse leading to a trade agreement or at least an investment agreement providing states and foreign direct investors with effective dispute resolution mechanisms.

The session was, somewhat reluctantly, brought to a close, allowing panel members and guests to enthusiastically continue the conversation and debate over networking drinks on Norton Rose Fulbright’s terrace overlooking Tower Bridge. Thank you to all who participated in this thought-provoking evening.


Cara Dowling, Senior knowledge lawyer, Norton Rose Fulbright, London

What’s the value of investment treaties?

by Dr. Dominic Beckers-Schwarz, Lawyer, Paris

 

On 7 March 2017, one day after the OECD Global Forum on International Investment, over one hundred stakeholders from businesses, trade unions, academics and OECD member states gathered for the one-day “3rd OECD Annual Conference on Investment Treaties”. The conference addressed issues concerning “evaluating and enhancing outcomes of investment treaties”.

How to measure the societal costs and benefits of investment treaties?

Following the previous day’s call for a new globalization narrative, the OECD opened the first conference panel by addressing the need to measure the societal costs and benefits of investment treaties.

Academics first explained the challenges of measuring the effects of investment treaties. While it may be easy to measure the economic exchange between two states, such a quantification is limited to bilateral interactions and does not necessarily address the global cross-fertilization of today’s investment treaties. The panel expressed doubt regarding the possibility of measuring in figures the societal costs and benefits of, for example, investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) and the political benefits of depoliticizing international investment disputes.

The panel turned to the, sometimes unwritten, fundamental goal of international investment treaties—depoliticizing investment disputes and enhancing international investment flows through clear, stable and enforceable investor rights—a sort of rule of law codification.

But international investments occur frequently, even where no international investment treaties exist. International investment agreements often are not part of national investment promotion programs. However, smaller states especially see the need to conclude investment treaties to enhance cross-border investment.

When an NGO representative asked whether ISDS could cause populist resistance, due to misuse of the system, panelists denied the possibility of potential abuse of ISDS through cherry-picking. Costs of investment arbitration procedures and anti-treaty-shopping clauses in international investment treaties would prevent misuse of the system.

In sum, academics and government officials from OECD and non-OECD countries agreed that the connection between international investment treaties and economic dynamics needs continuing assessment. Further work includes defining more standardized approaches to measuring the effects of investment treaties. The OECD could be an optimal organization to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

In my view, that governments are seeking out careful analysis of the costs and benefits of the investment treaty approach together is a positive sign to continue and enhance global cooperation in responsible investment policy.

Joint government interpretation of investment treaties—achievements and obstacles

The second panel addressed the topic of governments jointly interpreting international investment treaties in situations where no treaty clause permits the governments to do so (unlike NAFTA).

In general, the panel viewed earlier interpretations as better and more authoritative, since the later an interpretation, the more it may look like a hidden amendment.

Some state representatives explained that joint interpretations are a good way to avoid costly, lasting and complicated renegotiations. Participants mentioned fair and equitable treatment (FET) as a good joint interpretation example. Joint interpretations within the boundaries of the Vienna Convention of the Law of the Treaties might, for example, clarify or adjust an international investment treaty’s broad standards. Evolving views on what international investment treaties should address and how they should function lead to the need for such interpretations.

Another approach to enhancing the certainty and predictability of international investment treaties is a joint interpretation of certain investment treaty standards at the time of the treaty’s conclusion. For example, several provisions of CETA are subject to a joint interpretative instrument in CETA’s annex, which the parties agreed on at the time of signature. Such an expression of the parties’ intent might ensure greater clarity. However, conference participants cautioned that such joint interpretations must be clearly worded, because bad drafting could inspire further confusion rather than clarifying treaty standards.

Discussion participants further agreed that the non-disputing party of a treaty should always be informed about interpretations made by the disputing parties. Some provisions, namely Art. 5 of the UNCITRAL Rules on Transparency in Treaty-based Investor State Arbitration, even enable the non-disputing party to intervene in interpretations, such as by attending the hearings.

Panel members also expressed their interest in working on a plurilateral basis when interpreting standard investment treaty clauses. They saw this as the only way to maintain a common understanding of what an investment treaty covers.

Two participant questions especially showed the need for further work on the topic: (1) How far can a joint interpretation go, and when does it turn into an amendment? (2) As of when is a joint interpretation valid: the moment of the conclusion of the treaty or the moment of the formation of the joint interpretation?

In my view, joint interpretation can be a useful method of clarifying the contracting parties’ intent. However, retrospective joint interpretations might lead to back-door amendments, exceeding the reasonable bounds of the treaty. Further work in this area might seek to establish a clearer understanding of the barrier between legitimate interpretation and unwanted amendment and the impact of such a delineation in the field of international investment law.

Enhancing investment treaty outcomes and addressing globalization concerns

Though shorter in time, the closing panel drew on the Global Forum’s emphasis on “better” globalization from the day before and linked it to the discussions of this conference. Among international organizations—represented in this panel by UNCTAD and OECD—government representatives and NGOs, there is broad consensus on the necessity of further international cooperation and the global exchange of goods and investments. But ideas of whether the system is sufficiently inclusive, or how to make it more inclusive, still differ. The question, how to access the exact societal costs and benefits of these treaties showed the need for further work.

The panel showed, that OECD and UNCTAD both do substantive work on the topic and continue to do so by especially by reviews, reports, analysis and statistics. Governments endorse that work, since it is an important basis for their politics. NGOs use it to point out what may be improved in their view. This OECD conference gave governments as well as NGOs an opportunity to exchange their views on what the problems are and how to tackle them.

In my view, the OECD’s work—especially on topics like inclusive growth and responsible investment—can help promoting a form of broadly beneficial globalization in the investment context and in general. Let’s not ask whether globalization is crumbling away; let’s work on a globalization which fits everyone’s needs.

Multilateral Investment Court: A Realistic Approach to Achieve Coherence and Consistency in International Investment Law?

Shiva Ghahremani (Konrad & Partners)

Ivan Prandzhev (Konrad & Partners)

Against all odds, the idea of creating an investment court to replace arbitration tribunals hearing disputes between investors and states has so far made a remarkable career. It has been only 3 years since the idea of an international investment court surfaced in EU Trade Commissioner Malmström’s speech during the meeting of the International Trade Committee of the European Parliament, in which the idea was referred to as a “medium term objective”. Since then, it was transformed into what we know as the Investment Court System (ICS) and has made its way into EU’s agreement with Vietnam, as well as the negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with United States. It has also attracted significant public attention by replacing the originally envisaged investment arbitration tribunals in the EU’s Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement with Canada (CETA).

While CETA has not passed the tests of the 28 Member States’ parliaments yet, the European Commission is ready to move its investment court to the next level and is setting the stage for its multilateralization. The introduction of a Multilateral Investment Court (MIC) was the subject of an informal ministerial meeting hosted by the EU and Canada at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. The EU Commission has launched a public consultation to gather opinions from companies, scholars and civil society groups on this subject until the 15 March 2017.

The purpose of the MIC is to do away with the ad hoc nature of the current investor-state dispute settlement system, introducing a standing court with a permanent seat consisting of a first instance and an appellate body with highly qualified state-appointed arbitrators to serve at both tribunals.

The Commission does not lack ambition. A look into its “Inception Impact Paper” shows that its goal is to align the dispute settlement systems available under the existing EU Member States’ BITs and the ECT with the policy being negotiated in EU level trade and/or investment agreements. To put this into perspective, there are around 1400 EU Member States’ BITs and this represents a substantial portion of the overall 2329 BITs and 297 treaties with investment provisions currently in force according to the UNCTAD Investment Policy Hub data. If fully implemented, the Commission’s proposal may result in the most significant reform of investor-state dispute settlement since the ICSID Convention entered into force in 1966.

Even more remarkable is that this revolution is being announced at a time in which the original backlash against investment arbitration that has been there for a number of years is now turning into an outright rejection of multilateralism and globalization. Today’s political environment appears significantly more hostile than back in the period of 1995 to 1998, shortly after the coming into force of the Uruguay Round and the creation of the WTO when the last great attempt to reform investment protection failed with the end of the negotiations on the Multilateral Investment Agreement.

However, the domestic and international political problems are not the only challenges before the Commission’s MIC proposal. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has yet to decide the faith of the European investment protection itself since it showed in its Opinion 2/13 of 18 October 2014 that it would not tolerate other courts and tribunals encroaching its exclusive jurisdiction to interpret and apply European Union law. While the law applied by arbitral tribunals is usually derived from investment treaties and trade agreements with investment provisions, domestic European Union law may sometimes be considered as part of the relevant “factual matrix” [Ioan Micula, Viorel Micula and others v. Romania (I), ICSID Case No. ARB/05/20] and require interpretation.

In addition to this, the ICS has not yet been put to the test of enforcement. Obviously, any treaty underlying the proposed MIC will have to ensure enforcement in all its signatories as CETA does for the EU and Canada. However, what will be the probable response of the enforcement authorities in third countries to the question whether the decisions rendered by a MIC, modeled on the ICS, are indeed arbitral awards enforceable under the New York Convention or the ICSID Convention? Even though recent publications [Reinisch, in J Int Economic Law (2016) 19(4): 761 et seq.] suggest parties will be able to rely on the New York Convention, the question will remain hanging as a sword of Damocles over the MIC initiative until coherent case law is established.

The purpose of the CJEU’s exclusive jurisdiction is to guarantee the coherent application of the EU law. Coherency also appears to be one of the central objectives which the European Commission is seeking to achieve with its MIC initiative. In its Inception Impact Assessment, the European Commission points at inconsistencies in interpretation – sometimes of the very same provisions in the same BITs – which naturally results in unpredictability. In addition to all the reasons why certainty is a highly desirable feature for any legal system, the lack of certainty in the field of investment arbitration needs to be seen in the light of criticism often voiced with respect to the substantive standards of investment protection as being vague. Vagueness has the potential to increase the regulatory chill on governments beyond what was originally envisaged in the treaty. The European Commission, therefore, is seeking to allow coherent case law to emerge under the guidance of MIC’s Appellate Tribunal.

The focus on the debate on the word “court” makes us forget that, in the past, different and more effective solutions had been proposed to address the issue of incoherence. Such is the mechanism of “preliminary ruling” which would allow arbitral tribunals to avoid divergent interpretations ex-ante rather than engaging in a complex and cumbersome appellate procedure. Once faced with a fundamental issue of investment treaty law, the competent arbitral tribunal would be required to suspend the proceedings and request a ruling by a central and permanent body set up for this purpose. After such preliminary ruling on the interpretation of investment law has been provided, the tribunal would apply it to the merits of the case pending before it. This solution is mainly modeled on the system of preliminary rulings which safeguard the uniform application of the European Union law and has been proposed for the domain of investment protection by Christoph Schreuer [Schreuer, Preliminary Rulings in Investment Arbitration, in: Appeals Mechanism in International Investment Disputes (K. Sauvant ed.) 207 (2008)].

None of the alternative policy approaches discussed in the Commission’s Inception Impact Assessment seems to include this option. Apart from the founding of the MIC, the paper addresses alternative approaches such as renegotiating the currently applicable BITs one by one, the creation of a permanent multilateral appeal instance and the introduction of an appeal mechanism into the ICSID Convention, which would require renegotiating it. Article 53(1) of the ICSID Convention expressly provides that “[t]he award shall be binding on the parties and shall not be subject to any appeal or to any other remedy except those provided for in this Convention”. The introduction of a mechanism providing for preliminary rulings, however, would be fully compatible with this provision and would leave the principle of finality of arbitral awards untouched. While suspending the arbitral proceedings until a preliminary ruling is provided would add to the time and costs of investment arbitration, this solution guarantees higher procedural efficiency than an appellate review of the award.

While the ambition of the European Commission deserves admiration even from those who may disagree with its proposed solutions and oppose the MIC initiative, a more moderate approach may prove more realistic and may come from a different place. The ICSID is accepting suggestions from members of the public as to how to amend its Rules. A decade ago, the process of updating the ICSID Rules took about two years and introduced third-party briefs and early dismissal of claims which are “manifestly without legal merit”. The introduction of a system of preliminary rulings may fit the size of a comparable reform, help investment arbitration achieve a long-desired coherence, ensure enforceability awards and address at least one of the European Commission’s concerns with respect to its Member States’ BITs.

Norton Rose Fulbright and EFILA: Investor-state disputes, what will change post Brexit?

Norton Rose Fulbright and EFILA invite you to attend a panel discussion on trade, foreign investment and investor-state dispute settlement post-Brexit.

Panel discussion and drinks reception

We are pleased to host an distinguished panel of experts from industry, trade policy and investment treaty arbitration.

Topics our panel will cover include:

  • The UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU and non-EU countries
  • The fate of intra-EU bilateral investment treaties (BITs)
  • Trade and foreign investment protections (inward and outward bound investment)
  • Investor-state dispute settlement procedures
  • The EU’s proposed International Court System (ICS)

Speakers include:

  • Deborah Ruff, Partner, Norton Rose Fulbright
  • Chris Southworth, Secretary General, ICC UK
  • Ali Malek QC, 3 Verulam Buildings
  • Norah Gallagher, Academic Director, Energy and Natural Resources Law Institute, EFILA Advisory Board

Places for this session are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis. If you would like to attend please RSVP here.

Date:

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Time:

Registration: 6:00pm

Event start: 6:30pm

Drinks & canapes: 7:30pm

Where:

3 More London Riverside

London, SE1 2AQ

United Kingdom