By: Herb Somers
On Wednesday afternoon, August 3 at 14.00, Susan Karamanian, Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies at the George Washington University Law School, began her lecture by describing the process of investor-state arbitration, which is a system under international law that provides an investor an avenue to adjudicate disputes (through international arbitration) against a foreign government. This alternate dispute resolution system exists outside the court systems of the home or host state. The adjudicating body is a panel of three arbitrators chosen by the parties according to the provisions of the investment agreement. Typically, one arbitrator is chosen by the investor, one by the host state, and a third by agreement of the parties.
Such dispute resolution procedures can be found in a multitude of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) between individual countries, as well as in some international trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These agreements typically authorize the investor (the home state party) to request an arbitration when there is a violation of the BIT by the nation in which the investment is located (the host state). A typical BIT will provide the investor protection against expropriation without due process, most favored nation status as well as other equal protection provisions and general guarantees of fair and equitable treatment. The investment treaty also allows the investor to choose from an array of arbitration rules such as those used by the International Centre for Settlement Dispute (ICSID), or the UN Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD).
The selected arbitrators in a specific case must decide all issues in accordance with the chosen arbitration rules and they must also adjudicate the dispute consistent with the treaty provisions at hand and all applicable rules of international law. There are no explicit rules of precedent that are used by the panel, but a de facto system of precedent has emerged where arbitrators look to the decisions of previous bodies deciding on similar factual and legal issues. A common criticism of such arbitrations is that they are cloaked in secrecy due to the confidential nature of arbitration as a dispute mechanism. Until recently, it was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the award of an arbitral panel in a given case. However, later agreements have provided more transparency in the process of investor-state dispute resolution. Critics have also argued that such arbitrations are not bound by rules of judicial fairness and have no mandate to follow prevailing international human rights and environmental norms. Critics of investor-state arbitration have also decried the decisions of panels that have allowed states to face liability when investors have attacked environmental and health laws of the host state.
Karamanian believes that international human rights law can re-shape the process and address many of the concerns about investor state arbitration voiced by critics. She enumerated several reasons why this is true.
First, transparency issues have begun to be addressed. The secrecy surrounding earlier investor-state arbitration have given way to more open procedures. For example, the 2004 U.S. Model BIT allows for amicus curiae briefs and all documents relating to a particular investor-state dispute must be publicly available. Similarly, ICSID requires that all requests for arbitration must be made public. A majority of ICSID awards are disseminated publicly, and for those that are not, excerpts are provided.
Human rights principles may also be applicable to the dispute and can be raised by the parties in several ways. Based on the law and the arbitration rules in a particular dispute, international law may be controlling. In NAFTA Chapter 11 arbitration, the principles of the NAFTA agreement and international law explicitly apply to a particular dispute in that venue. Similarly, in ICSID arbitration, absent governing laws, international law applies as well, thus providing avenues for raising international human rights issues. Also, when national law applies, a monist state may raise international law as integral part of its domestic law.
Other international law principles also direct arbitrators to recognize human rights protections. For example jus cogens (non-derogable norms of international law) are given precedence over the obligations present in an international investment agreement. This rule is derived from article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Provisions of the United Nations Charter may also apply such as Article 103, which provides that in the event of a conflict between a state’s obligation under the Charter and that of a treaty, the conflict should be resolved in the favor of Charter obligations, which include the advancement of human rights principles by member states.
The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties can also be applied as an interpretative tool by arbitrators to divine the meaning of provisions in a given investment agreement. Article 31(1) of the Convention requires an arbitral body to interpret “in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in light of its object and purpose.” It is from this interpretive provision that the text of a given investment treaty can be read to infer international human rights protections despite not being explicitly mentioned within the document.
Finally, the investment treaties themselves have also begun to protect the prerogatives of states to regulate health, safety, and environmental concerns and limit their liability under a investment agreement. The 2012 U.S. Model BIT, for example, excludes “ non-discriminatory regulations that are tailored to protect public health, safety, and the environment.” Other provisions in concluded BITs also protect a state so that it may fulfill its duties to maintain or restore international peace and security.
While recent decisions of investor-state arbitral tribunals have recognized a state’s legitimate right to protect the health and welfare of its citizens without liability to a foreign investor, much work needs to be done. Ultimately, this process of integrating human rights norms into investor-state arbitration will require arbitrators who are knowledgeable of the relevant law and willing to apply the norms of international human rights and other international standards to the disputes before them. Law librarians will play a vital role in this process by making these materials readily accessible and by sharing their reference expertise with lawyers in the field.