Host States: The Perpetual Respondents in Investment Arbitration?

By Vaidehi Balvally, a fourth-year student at HNLU, Raipur

Here is what international investment arbitrations conventionally look like: a company contracts with a country to invest in mining, power plants, electricity, waste management, or other similar sectors. Apart from this investor-state contract, there exists a state-state international investment agreement between the home state of the company and the host state of investment, typically a Bilateral Investment Treaty (‘BIT’). This BIT guarantees investors of both states procedural rights (e.g. the right to an investment claim) and substantive rights (e.g. right against expropriation by host state). Upon breach of such rights under the contract or the BIT, a claimant-company can opt to institute an investment arbitration against the respondent-host state. 

Off-balance access to the filing of claims

In response to the filing of an investment claim, host states have often chosen to file counter-claims (albeit unsuccessfully, barring a few exceptions). However, it is exceptionally infrequent for host states to institute claims independently before investment tribunals. International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (‘ICSID‘) data exhibits that host states have largely either turned to domestic dispute resolution or worse, traded human rights for investment-friendliness (as in the case of Urbaser v. Argentina). 

Only five cases under ICSID have moved past the jurisdictional and investor-consent barrier: Gabon’s proceedings against Société Serete S.A. which ended in a settlement (1976) (i); Tanzania’s case against a partly-owned Malaysian corporation (1998) (ii); an Indonesian province’s proceedings which failed since the province could not represent the host state (2007) (iii); Equatorial Guinea’s conciliation proceedings with CMS, which failed in coming to a settlement (2012) (iv); and a Rwandan government company’s case against a London-based power plant operator which is pending (2018) (v). 

This asymmetry in filing claims before investment tribunals is not without good reason. Investment arbitration was created to protect foreign investment, and in turn, the investors from unbridled use of sovereign power by host states. Consequently, BITs rarely accord investors with substantive obligations, similar to third-party beneficiaries in contracts, and if host states do premise their substantive cause of action upon the BIT, the BIT either is silent or confers incomplete procedural rights to bring forth a claim. 

It is pertinent to note that all former claimant-state cases have only been based on rights conferred to host states under the investor-state contract. This implies that in the absence of BIT-based rights to investment arbitration, inequitable contracts will continue to remain unaddressed, with a change in BIT structure offering a much-needed resolution forum. 

Possible solutions

UK’s BITs are oft-cited as including a model clause which not only confers upon the host state a right to initiate arbitration but also establishes investor-state privity by drafting in the investor’s consent for all disputes brought forth the host state. 

However, even with a procedural right to proceed to arbitration, most BITs are silent on substantive rights for host states. A solution adopted when the investor suffers only from contractual but not treaty-based breaches, is the use of an ‘umbrella clause’ in BITs which encompasses rights conferred upon investors in an investor-state contract into the larger umbrella of the BIT. Thus, an investor can sue for contractual breach claims in investment arbitration, the jurisdiction of which was established under the BIT, followed in Noble Ventures v. Romania, SGS v. Philippinesand Eureko v. Poland amongst others. Drawing a parallel from this solution, a reverse umbrella clause would allow the institution of investment arbitration by host states in case of a contractual breach, and was similarly used in Roussalis v. Romania to allow filing of counterclaims.  

Breeding good governance

After establishing how host states could be equipped with claimant’s rights, prudence demands a look at why host states should begin relying on investment arbitration more than they historically have:

  • Often, states dependent on foreign investment are hosts to judicial systems which do not fulfill rule-of-law requirements, while investment arbitration is systemically more impartial than domestic courts of host/home states. Moreover, it affords host states an international enforcement mechanism, the likes of which are unavailable for locally adjudicated decisions. 
  • Developing states of the global south are especially vulnerable to exploitation by investors with an economic prowess that parallels their whole economies. Conversely, if the judicial systems are entrenched with judicial corruption, host states may want to take a lesson from the Lago Agrio case to preserve their reputation as investment-friendly states by approaching the international investment tribunals in the first place. 
  • The adjudicatory mechanism of the host states may also be exceptionally drawn-out or unreliable, which may eventually lead a party to file for investment claims with a tribunal. To elaborate India was found guilty of a BIT breach for being unable to process investor claims locally for over nine years in White Industries v. India.
  • Another advantage for host states may be the unavailability of appeal against investment arbitration awards except to have them annulled, as opposed to the layered domestic judicial systems. Accounting for the standard of care exercised by tribunals in ensuring that it reaches the most equitable decisions, the time and economic resources invested by parties of the process are significantly lower, especially if the claimant believes it has a strong case. 
  • Even if none of these ring true for a host state, foreign investors commonly operate only out of a domestic investment vehicle in the host state, and enforcement of a decision extra-territorially may not be an option. Alternatively, extra-territorial investments may be of significance in a dispute, which lie outside domestic jurisdiction.

Conclusion

The number of cases that were filed under ICSID by host states but failed, if we include state-owned enterprises, have tripled in the past decade. With 70% of all investment arbitration favouring investors in 2018, the resultant backlash of host states against international investment arbitration is understandable. The reasons for this lack of trust by host states or their subsequent failure in investment arbitration has its roots in state-state BIT and investor-state contract construction, which can be remedied. 

The drafters of the ICSID Convention were wary of investment arbitration turning into a mechanism akin to the domestic judicial review of regulatory measures and appended a report endorsing equality of access to investment arbitration to investors and host states. In contract to commercial arbitration where parties are private actors, host states intervene to secure serious human rights for its populace (water, electricity, labour rights). If this discourse of delegitimisation prevails, conduct incompatible with public welfare will lose its international voice. 

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