Update on the future of ISDS: the discussions within UNCITRAL Working Group III – no apparent consensus to date

After a number of years of public debate in a variety of fora, the discussion of the future development of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) has recently moved to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). UNCITRAL Working Group III (WGIII) has been given a broad mandate to identify concerns regarding ISDS, consider whether reform is desirable and, if so, develop relevant solutions to be recommended to UNCITRAL.

WGIII started its work in the 34th session which took place from 27 November to 1 December 2017. As discussed further below, a number of key points were discussed, including: (i) the duration and costs involved in the procedure; (ii) the allocation of costs; and (iii) transparency. There was also some preliminary consideration of possible developments or changes in relation to the treatment of these issues. The Report of the 34th session indicates that some states advocate a fact-based analysis of ISDS but others note the need to address wider public perceptions of ISDS, as these can raise concerns over the legitimacy of the system.

Bringing the debate about the future of ISDS under the auspices of UNCITRAL, involving high level government representatives from across the world, and also in view of the transparent nature of WGIII’s process, raises the stakes, and perhaps also the prospects, of a more systemic reform. However, whilst the forum has the potential to generate a multilateral plan for ISDS, it is hard to discern any broad consensus at this stage either on the nature of the perceived problems associated with the current system of ad hoc arbitration, or on how those problems may be resolved. This is apparent from the Report and also from the audio recordings (helpfully summarised by IA Reporter, here). The 35th session will take place on April 23 to April 27 2018, following which further clarity on these issues may emerge.

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EU Council publishes Negotiating Directives for Convention establishing a Multilateral Investment Court: no real surprises but a couple of gaps

On 20 March, 2018 the Council of the European Union published negotiating directives dated 1 March 2018 authorizing the European Commission to negotiate a convention establishing a multilateral court for the settlement of investment disputes between investors and states. Whilst the detailed characteristics of the proposed multilateral investment court (the MIC) will be developed during the course of the negotiations, the Negotiating Directives give considerable indication of the EU’s intentions as to the MIC’s features.

The Negotiating Directives have their origin in the Commission’s Recommendation for a Council Decision authorising the opening of negotiations for a Convention establishing a multilateral investment court, published in September 2017.  This included a recommendation that negotiating directives be drawn up and made public immediately after their adoption.  The Commission has since commented that “the EU’s new policy on investment is fundamentally based on transparency” and that publication of the Negotiating Directives allows the EU “to continue to work with like-minded partners around the globe” towards creating a MIC, “knowing that EU citizens are fully informed of [its] negotiating instructions”.

Whilst the EU introduced its intention to move towards a multilateral system in a Concept Paper in 2015 (see our blog post here), the Commission’s Recommendation itself came shortly after UNCITRAL indicated in its 50th Session in July 2017 that UNCITRAL Working Group III would consider possible reform of investor-state dispute settlement.  This work began in the Working Group’s 34th session in November 2017, with its next session due to take place on 23 to 27 April 2018.  It will therefore be seen as no coincidence that the EU has chosen to publish these Negotiating Directives at this stage, and they will set the framework for the participation of the EU and its Member States, as further considered below.  The EU has also submitted a paper to the Working Group in advance of its next session highlighting its concerns over the current system of ISDS.

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NAFTA Renegotiation: ISDS reform objectives

The United States will lobby for changes to the investor-state dispute settlement (“ISDS”) provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) in the upcoming discussions to renegotiate the regional treaty.

ISDS reform is one of several “negotiating objectives” announced last month by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (the “USTR”), the federal agency with responsibility for US trade negotiations.  The disclosure was made public in accordance with a 2015 statute that requires the USTR to release objectives at least 30 days before the start of formal trade negotiations.  The NAFTA talks are set to begin in Washington D.C. on August 16.

On the agenda are modest proposals for increased transparency in the NAFTA ISDS process, such as the introduction of mandatory public access to NAFTA arbitration hearings, and submissions, and awards.  Those amendments would be broadly in line with the recent trend toward greater public transparency throughout the investment treaty space.  A more striking departure from current practice is suggested by the proposed introduction of a “right” of “non-governmental entities . . . to request making written submissions to a panel.” Continue reading