Avoiding ISDS: National Contact Points for Investor Guidelines and Mediation

by Tabe van Hoolwerff* 

Imagine, you are an EU trade minister and you want to attract foreign investors by offering a stable investment climate. At the same time, you also want to avoid potential claims arising from government measures that seek to protect the environment or labor standards – a fear your non-business stakeholders have been very vocal about. You have also learned from the business sector that Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) is a means of last resort. So there must be room for maneuvering in the area of conflict prevention. Two keywords from your experience in the policy field of responsible business conduct spring to mind: transparency and mediation. How to go from there?

Despite the public belief that foreign investors will easily sue their host governments when faced with measures that impair their profitability, you realize that by far and large such measures remain uncontested at the investor-to-state level. Moreover, measures aimed at business activities in order to e.g. reduce their environmental impact are also in the self-interest of companies and a business sector as a whole. When a laggard in the industry fails to uphold common yet not mandatory levels of environmental protection, then that may put the social license to operate of the industry as a whole at risk.

So, new legislation requiring particular environmental standards to be upheld for that industry is likely to help them all in the long run. You smile when realizing that it ‘only’ takes a fine minister as yourself and your colleagues to find the right balance between adequate environmental protection and reasonable costs for the business sector. Typical Brussels jargon such as subsidiarity and proportionality may even spring to mind.

Back to transparency. Although you are not likely to be an expert in international investment law, you have learned that cases often center around ‘legitimate expectations’ of the investor. So in order to guide these expectations, you want to inform (potential) foreign investors about the basic regulatory framework in your country and the democratic process for making new laws and regulations, in which they could perhaps even participate. It would indeed be useful to compile this information on such issues as disclosure, corporate governance, labor and consumer rights, environmental standards, anti-bribery laws and taxation into one convenient document.

Of course you want to mention that these laws and regulations are upheld in a non-discriminatory manner, in case an investor might think he could be bullied on the basis of all these norms and standards. You decide to call them ‘Guidelines for Responsible Investment’ or something similar. You want to use that word ‘responsible’ because it reassures your non-business stakeholders what kind of investment and investors you want to attract and it tells investors to be responsible by making themselves aware of laws and regulations and how to appropriately engage in their making.

Obviously, these Guidelines need to be disseminated. If you do not yet have a special agency for attracting foreign investment, you might consider doing so now and give it a catchy name that will send the right signals to all stakeholders, like ‘National Contact Point for Responsible Investment’. This Contact Point can draw a communication plan, visit trade fairs and help organizing incoming trade missions where potential investors learn of both the opportunities and obligations when investing in your country.

But no matter how clearly you and your government communicate about laws, regulations, individual permit procedures and subsidy schemes, a conflict between your government and a foreign investor might still emerge one day. You know investors are not happy to resort to investor-state arbitration – it is expensive and the odds are not with the investors – and neither are you. Investor-state conflicts are bad publicity of course. Similar to legal disputes between private parties, you think that a state and a foreign investor should be able to try amicable venues first, such as mediation.

Of course, when offering mediation, you do want to keep some level of control, but also provide assurance to the investor that the entity providing its good offices knows about doing business and the various risks involved. Well, why not put that same Contact Point in charge here? All it needs is some procedural guidance on how to handle specific instances in which a foreign investor alleges discriminatory government measures have run counter to his legitimate expectations. The objective should not be to render verdicts about right or wrong, but to produce future-oriented recommendations that enable the investor to continue his/her business, so creating jobs and government revenue while observing applicable norms and standards that protect public goods.

In short, you could come up with the idea of drafting Guidelines for Responsible Investment that would be disseminated by a National Contact Point that would also deal with complaints by offering its good offices to aggrieved investors. It would be helpful of course if all your EU colleagues would apply a similar model, for purposes of a level playing field and exchanging experiences with handling investor complaints. Only then you realize that this plan sounds all too familiar. You call your investment policy expert to verify your thoughts. (S)He will indeed confirm that your plan strikingly resembles the 1976 OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the related National Contact Points and their tasks, responsibilities and procedural guidance, most recently updated in 2011.

Only that it has been used in the past two decades by civil society to hold companies to account. But indeed, with some creativity the OECD Guidelines and NCPs could also be applied as an ISDS prevention mechanism. After all, the Guidelines are part of the OECD Declaration on International Investment and they include an encouragement of the use of arbitration as an appropriate means of dispute resolution between enterprises and host governments. How come nobody else ever thought of this? Would it not be worth exploring?


Tabe van Hoolwerff is a legal counsel with Shell. This blog was written and published on a personal title and not on behalf of Shell. The views reflected are Tabe’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Shell.

Right to Regulation & Investment Court System: Alternative to ISDS? (Part II) – Mediation in Investor-State Dispute: An Option 

 Pratyush Nath Upreti*, Upreti & Associates

In my previous contribution to the EFILA blog, titled Right to Regulation & Investment Court System: Alternative to ISDS?, I analyzed the debate raised by the ISDS provision in TTIP and how the proposed Investment Court may not be able to solve the issues raised by ISDS. It is important to analyze the reasons behind such a huge cry over ISDS set up in the Trade/Investment Agreement. The European Federation for Investment Law and Arbitration (EFILA) in its paper titled A response to the criticism against ISDS has balanced an analysis on the criticism of ISDS.

It is evident that in recent years, there has been a diversion of opinions, which is painful to investors and also encroaching on the national matters of State. Therefore, the global community has to realize that the present ISDS is not always working effectively and alternatives should be proposed. The European Commission’s proposed ‘Investment Court’ might be a step towards formulating an alternative.  No doubt that the proposal is a good attempt but it still needs to be revised.

Recent Trends of International Investment Agreements

In recent years, more countries have been opting for IIAs to continue their existing co-operation with countries or as a way to find an economic development. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), there has been rapid growth of IIA from 1980 till 2014 (see Figure 1.)

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Figure 1: Trends of IIAs (Preliminary data for 2014UNCTAD, IIA database)

The above graph highlights the recent trends of IIAs from 1980-2014. It is expected that IIAs number will increase, but the graph indicates that there has been a decline in the last few years. According to UNCTAD data, in 2004 there were 27 IIAs, out of which 14 were Bilateral Investment treaties (BITs) and 13 were ‘other IIAs’, i.e. economic agreements other than BITs like

Free trade agreements (FTAs), bringing the total number of agreements to 3,268 (2,923 BITs and 345 ‘other IIAs). The total number of IIAs was lower down in 2014 as compared to 2013 where there was a total of 44 IIAs (30 BITs and 14 Other IIAs). The interesting fact is that in 2013 the number of BITs terminated was 148, out of which a new treaty replaced 105, 27 were unilaterally denounced and 16 were terminated by consent.

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Figure 2: Most Active negotiator of ‘other IIAs’; treaties under negotiation and partners involved. Source: UNCTAD, IIA database.

The above figure emphasizes the number of treaties under negotiation and partner countries involved in a negotiation. At present, the European Union has 28 treaties under negotiation among 70 different countries as partners. Although the data highlights seven countries under negotiation, but at present there are 45 countries and four regional integration organizations that are revising their model IIAs.

The findings of UNCTAD data highlights that the countries’ willingness to enter into agreements and few IIAs are under revision. This implies three things. First, negotiation is getting more complex because of the increase in the number of countries in the negotiation process, as every country has a share of interest. Furthermore, even if a deal is negotiated in the broader package, then also the question of commitment to those issues is very important.

Second, the interrelation between IIAs and domestic concerns comprising ‘social, environmental and public health’ matters makes negotiation more difficult. Ignoring this issue means that negotiation has a severe impact on the development of host countries. Therefore, finding the proper balance may take more time, which makes negotiation slow.

Third, some of the most recent investment disputes might show that IIAs go beyond the protection and promotion issues and leave no flexibility on some issues that allow member countries to peruse their development agenda, according to their needs.

Fourth, the transparency in negotiation deals creates a public nuisance on some contingent issues, diverse opinions on other issues, which may or may not be discussed, would have a negative impact on negotiations and, as a result, it creates negative public opinion.

Fifth, recent claims of investors under the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism have raised concern on such negotiation deals particularly such claims are encroaching upon host state sovereignty and domestic regulation.

The critics fear that the growing frivolous claims brought to ISDS will slowly discourage investors and states to opt for ISDS.  The data shows that the average cost of arbitration is $8 million per party. Therefore, at international level, there is a need to offer an alternative, which balances both the interest of investors and states. Moreover, such an alternative should be acceptable by both the parties.

Investor-State Mediation

In recent years, the relationship between the state and investors is getting salvaged. The development will be fragile when rift exists between the investor and state. Parties – for own benefit – use the increasing diverse opinions of the arbitration tribunals. This will result in negative consequences in global investment regime. The possible way to balance the system is by revising ISDS provisions or adopting investor-state mediation.

The very idea of arbitration, mediation and conciliation is to resolve the dispute. Among the three, arbitration is overwhelmingly accepted for several years. The growing criticism of ISDS has sorrowed relation between investors and the State and should be looked at with immediate concern. Perhaps, the time has come to also use the mediation process in Investor-State Disputes. There has been an attempt to use mediation in Investor-state disputes with success in a limited jurisdiction. However, scholars argue the very nature in which mediation aims to settle a dispute is different from arbitration, making it difficult for acceptance of mediation.

According to Jacqueline Nolan-Haley in her work ‘Mediation: The ‘New Arbitration’ argues that “the morality of mediation lies in the optimum settlement, a settlement in which early party gives up what he values less, in return for what he values more. The morality of arbitration lies in a decision according to the law of contract.”  The author explains this observation, as the nature of mediation is more adversarial than that of arbitration.

Similarly, authors Welsh & Schneider in their work ‘Becoming Investor –State Mediation’ (2012) analyze a very fundamental difference between ‘mediation’ and ‘arbitration’. According to the authors, mediation is an ‘interest-based’ system of negotiation, which looks like a meeting. Whereas, ‘arbitration’ is a ‘right-based’ system which looks like a hearing. The very fundamental concept, which the authors are trying to convey, is that the mediation facilitates parties to arrive to a decision unlike arbitration, which focuses on adjudication.  Also, the authors clear the misnomer attached to ‘mediation’. They identify several models of  ‘mediation’ such as ‘facilitative’, ‘elective’, and ‘understanding-focused’, ‘therapeutic’ ‘Humanistic,’ ‘narrative,’ ‘insightful,’ ‘transformative’ and focus on facilitating the development of understanding and ‘integrative (or interest-based) solutions’.

Among these models, the authors suggest adopting a model which will improve relationships between the parties and able to acknowledge volatile political situations.  In other words, the authors suggest the last model as a suitable model in the context of investment treaties. Also somewhere in their article, the authors touch the possibilities of the role of state officials as potential ‘quasi-mediators’. I tend to disagree on this, particularly in the context of investor-state disputes. The role of state officials as quasi-mediators will further complicate the process and may create a trust-deficit environment. Therefore, it is important to note that the very foundation of the mediation process is ‘trust’.

Mediation in Investment Agreements

The recent studies show that mediation has been used with great success in international commercial law. The critics argue that success of mediation in commercial law cannot be an assurance for success in the international investment regime. However, the recent Investment Agreements such as EU-Canada: Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement (ACIA) have incorporated ‘mediation’ in their provisions..

Also, mediation features in some Model BITs. For example Article 10.4 of the Thai BIT Model states that:

The disputing parties may at any time agree to good offices, conciliation or mediation. Procedures for good office, conciliation or mediation may begin at any time and may be terminated at any time. Such procedures may continue while the matter is being examined by an arbitral established under this article, unless the disputing parties agree otherwise. Proceedings involving good offices, conciliation and mediation and positions taken by the disputing parties during these proceedings shall be confidential and without prejudice to the rights of disputing investor in any further or other proceedings.

This shows that mediation appears in some Investment Agreements and it is just a matter of time until such practice will gain momentum.

Mediation as an alternative?

There is a diversion of opinion within the scholar’s milieu arguing that arbitration is more favorable than other forms of dispute settlement. However, the recent trends urge us to rethink arbitration and finding beyond the arbitration.  This forum shift has been realized in other international communities, as a result of IBA rules on Mediation developed to encourage good practices of mediation. One of the important features of the IBA rules on mediation gives the liberty to the state to make the mediation process private. This will take away unwanted public opinion.

At the end, I think every modern Investment agreement should include ‘Consultation’ & ‘Mediation’ among the methods for amicable settlement of disputes arising out of International Investment Agreements.  I believe adopting mediation would be a right approach because the process does not abide with a strict interpretation of law unlike in ISDS.

Similarly, the mediation process is a more informal proceeding than ISDS and involvement of a neutral party to the dialogue would give rise to a win-win situation for both parties. Moreover, in the broader sense, the inclusion of mediation in IIAs will make a country less skeptical about consequences of litigating intellectual property rights through regular ISDS mechanism. In other words, the mediation process will help the state to main regulatory rights in the host country.

On the other side, it is important to note that the decision of mediation does not gain force as like of arbitration under the ICSID Convention, making mediation a toothless weapon.  This would be the reason for Europe to opt for ‘Investment Court’ model in spite of reference to mediation in CETA, which is similar to the WTO mediation process for trade dispute settlement.

However, there is a school of thought believing that mediation may create transparency and a proper environment to negotiate between the parties.  But the lack of enforcement of such a decision might make the situation worse.  Therefore, it would not be rational to jump to a conclusion that the ‘mediation’ process will immediately solve the problems raised by ISDS. Moreover, the mediation process is yet to be tested in International Investment Agreements.


Pratyush Nath Upreti – is a Lawyer at Upreti & Associates a Kathmandu based law firm, where he is leading commercial and research department. He holds Advanced Master (LLM) Intellectual Property Law & Knowledge Management (IPKM) degree from Maastricht University, Netherlands. He is also an executive member of New IP Lawyers Network, a wing of school of Law and its research centre SCule (Science, Culture and the Law) under University of Exeter, United Kingdom. He can be reached by   p.upreti@student.maastrichtuniversity.nl