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ISDS Courts

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No TTIP train to Brussels. Lobbying the European Commission. Belgium. © Jess Hurd/NoTTIP
No TTIP train to Brussels. Lobbying the European Commission. Belgium.
© Jess Hurd/NoTTIP

I have written a lot about the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts that make up a central tenet of the Trans Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements. These extra-national courts effectively give corporations a new legal system to protect their interests that has no accountability to nations or peoples, no access for those peoples to defend themselves, and no system so that citizens can even know what is going on in them. Corporations can use them to protect their profits so that if a nation passes a law that could affect future profits, the companies can use the ISDS courts to sue for future profits lost. That could mean that minimum wage laws, anti-mining regulations, protections for forests, pollution regulations, etc., could be effectively overturned. And given the power dynamics involved in the world, it’s going to be western companies going after developing world nation laws more often than not. These courts have been around for a long time, but they are growing more powerful today. There are two recent pieces of journalism exploring the many problems with the ISDS courts.

First from Chris Hamby:

The series starts today with perhaps the least known and most jarring revelation: Companies and executives accused or even convicted of crimes have escaped punishment by turning to this special forum. Based on exclusive reporting from the Middle East, Central America, and Asia, BuzzFeed News has found the following:

A Dubai real estate mogul and former business partner of Donald Trump was sentenced to prison for collaborating on a deal that would swindle the Egyptian people out of millions of dollars — but then he turned to ISDS and got his prison sentence wiped away.

In El Salvador, a court found that a factory had poisoned a village — including dozens of children — with lead, failing for years to take government-ordered steps to prevent the toxic metal from seeping out. But the factory owners’ lawyers used ISDS to help the company dodge a criminal conviction and the responsibility for cleaning up the area and providing needed medical care.

Two financiers convicted of embezzling more than $300 million from an Indonesian bank used an ISDS finding to fend off Interpol, shield their assets, and effectively nullify their punishment.

Driving this expansion are the lawyers themselves. They have devised new and creative ways to deploy ISDS, and in the process bill millions to both the businesses and the governments they represent. At posh locales around the globe, members of The Club meet to swap strategies and drum up potential clients, some of which are household names, such as ExxonMobil or Eli Lilly, but many more of which are much lower profile. In specialty publications, the lawyers suggest novel ways to use ISDS as leverage against governments. It’s a sort of sophisticated, international version of the plaintiff’s attorney TV ad or billboard: Has your business been harmed by an increase in mining royalties in Mali? Our experienced team of lawyers may be able to help.

A few of their ideas: Sue Libya for failing to protect an oil facility during a civil war. Sue Spain for reducing solar energy incentives as a severe recession forced the government to make budget cuts. Sue India for allowing a generic drug company to make a cheaper version of a cancer drug.

In a little-noticed 2014 dissent, US Chief Justice John Roberts warned that ISDS arbitration panels hold the alarming power to review a nation’s laws and “effectively annul the authoritative acts of its legislature, executive, and judiciary.” ISDS arbitrators, he continued, “can meet literally anywhere in the world” and “sit in judgment” on a nation’s “sovereign acts.”

Reviewing publicly available information for about 300 claims filed during the past five years, BuzzFeed News found more than 35 cases in which the company or executive seeking protection in ISDS was accused of criminal activity, including money laundering, embezzlement, stock manipulation, bribery, war profiteering, and fraud.

Among them: a bank in Cyprus that the US government accused of financing terrorism and organized crime, an oil company executive accused of embezzling millions from the impoverished African nation of Burundi, and the Russian oligarch known as “the Kremlin’s banker.”

Some are at the center of notorious scandals, from the billionaire accused of orchestrating a massive Ponzi scheme in Mauritius to multiple telecommunications tycoons charged in the ever-widening “2G scam” in India, which made it into Time magazine’s top 10 abuses of power, alongside Watergate. The companies or executives involved in these cases either denied wrongdoing or did not respond to requests for comment.

Most of the 35-plus cases are still ongoing. But in at least eight of the cases, bringing an ISDS claim got results for the accused wrongdoers, including a multimillion-dollar award, a dropped criminal investigation, and dropped criminal charges. In another, the tribunal has directed the government to halt a criminal case while the arbitration is pending.

To say the least, this should alarm you greatly.
Then from David Dayen, on how financiers are figuring out ways to make money of the ISDS courts:

Here’s how it works: Wealthy financiers with idle cash have purchased companies that are well placed to bring an ISDS claim, seemingly for the sole purpose of using that claim to make a buck. Sometimes, they set up shell corporations to create the plaintiffs to bring ISDS cases. And some hedge funds and private equity firms bankroll ISDS cases as third parties — just like billionaire Peter Thiel bankrolled Hulk Hogan in his lawsuit against Gawker Media.

It’s the same playbook that hedge funds were following when they bought up Argentine, Puerto Rican and other U.S. housing debt for pennies on the dollar. As The Huffington Post reported in May, the financiers were betting they could use lawsuits and lobbying to influence the political system in favor of the creditors like them and reap huge rewards.

Indeed, the damage of ISDS goes far beyond the money that investors manage to extract from public coffers and extends to the corruption of a political system by investors who buy off scholars, economists and politicians in pursuit of whatever policy outcome leads to a payoff. And there’s nothing stopping plutocrats with agendas that go beyond profit-making from getting involved ― again the way Thiel did with Gawker. That alone changes the power dynamic: If you’re the government of Thailand, the billionaire you’re negotiating with has one extra threat at his disposal.

If these investors are able to cement ISDS as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the opportunities for hedge funds to do what they’ve already done to Argentina will be endless ― possibly even in cities and states under financial pressure in the U.S., like Detroit and Illinois.

So-called third-party funding of “international arbitration against foreign sovereigns” has been expanding quickly, according to Selvyn Seidel, a pioneer in the litigation finance industry and now CEO of the advisory firm Fulbrook Capital Management.

“You can get an award for billions of dollars when that award would never come out in domestic law,” said Gus van Harten, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto. “It’s just a jackpot for speculators.”

Here’s an example. In 2008, the Spanish government, under pressure from the eurozone to cut its budget during the financial crisis, began to reverse generous subsidies for solar energy. Spain reduced support for solar in stages. It changed the definition of its main solar incentive program in 2008, reduced the subsidies through two measures in 2010, placed a moratorium on subsidies for new solar plants in 2011, and added further restrictions in 2013.

Renewable energy activists could only shout into the air. But a group of investors hatched a plan.

Between November 2011 and December 2013, 22 different companies sued Spain in seven different cases over the subsidy changes – not in Spanish courts, but using ISDS.

As Dayen points out, the expansion of the ISDS courts under the TPP is extremely alarming. But on the other hand, you can have trade courts that actually work.

Now, upcoming trade agreements would dramatically expand this system. Public Citizen estimates that 9,000 new companies would gain ISDS rights to sue the United States under TPP alone. That’s 9,000 new opportunities for financiers to reach down into state and local coffers, in addition to the federal government, to grab cash. TPP would also expand the “minimum standard of treatment” clause, which sets up the most flexible type of ISDS claim, to cover financial services companies, meaning almost any change in the expected future profits of a bank could be challenged. “TPP was a win for the banks on ISDS,” said van Harten, the law professor.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Investors could be forced to prove discrimination in national courts first before proceeding to arbitration. Or national courts could exercise judicial review over ISDS awards. The largest ISDS award in history, $50 billion to a web of companies all owned by Russian oil magnate Mikhail Khodorovsky, was actually set aside by a Dutch court in April, the first time that has happened in a treaty-based ISDS case. Arbitrators — who generally come from a very small group of international corporate lawyers — could be made independent of the process, with set salaries, security of tenure and no financial ties to litigants. The definition of investor could be tightened, giving only companies that contribute to economic development the right to access ISDS.

But the easiest way to fix ISDS is to throw it out. Several countries, including India, Indonesia and Ecuador, have told their trade partners they’re considering terminating bilateral treaties because of ISDS. Some experts question whether the system is necessary even in the situations it was originally designed for.

I understand the need for some sort of trade courts in the age of globalization. The fundamental problem with the ISDS courts though is that they lack any accountability at all. If you bring a case up to one, the lawyers and judges might be neutral. Or they might not be. But no one can really say (and I’ve had conversations with experts on this who have said that it is basically a crap shoot with one of these cases). These courts need to allow access to citizens as well. If companies have access to extra-national courts, regular citizens also need access to those courts. They need to enforce labor law, minimum wages, working conditions, pollution standards, mining and forest protection, etc. Without that ability, we have simply created a legal system that ensures the vast majority of the world’s citizens are not represented and that the desires of those citizens to pass various laws can be undemocratically overturned. That is simply unacceptable. On this point alone, not to mention the many other problems, we should reject the Trans Pacific Partnership.

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