Defending Foreign Corporations' Privileges Is Hard, Especially When Looking At The Facts
Forbes just published this response from Lori Wallach and Ben Beachy (GTW director and research director) to a counterfactual Forbes opinion piece by John Brinkley in support of investor-state dispute settlement.
By Lori Wallach & Ben Beachy
Even those who support the controversial idea of a parallel legal system for foreign corporations, known as investor-state dispute settlement or ISDS, likely cringed at John Brinkley’s recent attempt to defend that system. (“Trade Dispute Settlement: Much Ado About Nothing,” October 16.)
In trying to justify trade agreement provisions that provide special rights and privileges to foreign firms to the disadvantage of their domestic competitors, Brinkley wrote 24 sentences with factual assertions. Seventeen of them were factually wrong.
To his credit, it is no easy task to defend a system that empowers foreign corporations to bypass domestic courts and laws to demand taxpayer compensation for domestic policies that apply equally to their local competitors, but that they claim frustrate special privileges granted to them as foreign investors. The cases are heard by extrajudicial tribunals not bound by precedent. Decisions are not subject to substantive appeal.
Brinkley’s mission was particularly difficult given how unpopular the ISDS system has become. Indeed, one reason that the CATO Institute has come out against ISDS is the realistic concern that its inclusion in the proposed trans-Pacific and transatlantic free trade pacts could derail those negotiations.
ISDS is risky to include in a transatlantic deal
In Europe, the incoming European Commission President and the Economic Minister of Germany have both indicated that they oppose including ISDS in the U.S.-EU deal. Whether one focuses on the threat to solvency or fair competition, it’s especially risky to include ISDS in a transatlantic deal. Doing so would newly empower more than 70,000 U.S. and EU subsidiaries of cross-registered firms to demand compensation based on special foreign investor privileges—an unprecedented increase in liability for both the United States and the EU.
Around the world, governments from Australia to South Africa have started to rebuke ISDS as studies have shown countries have failed to attract more FDI by enacting ISDS agreements, while governments—and their treasuries—have come under increasing ISDS attacks by foreign firms.
Only 50 cases were launched in the first three decades of ISDS pacts. But in each of the past three years more than 50 cases have been filed annually. The current stock of 568 ISDS cases includes demands for compensation over land use policies, tobacco controls, energy and financial regulations, pollution cleanup requirements, patent standards and other policies that apply equally to domestic firms, and that often have been approved by domestic high courts.
This trend and its threat to the rule of law have led esteemed jurists from free-trade-minded nations such as Singapore, New Zealand and Australia to join the U.S. National Conference of State Legislatures (which represents our states’ majority GOP-controlled legislatures) in opposing ISDS.
Reviewing the facts
In his quixotic effort to defend the ISDS system, Brinkley made a real mess of the facts. There’s not space to go through all 17 factual errors, but it’s important to correct his biggest blunders.
For instance, Brinkley argued, “What matters is not whether [the foreign corporations] can sue, but whether they can win.” He then proceeded to misstate the win record.
In fact, the United Nations figures on ISDS case outcomes, which Brinkley cited, show that foreign corporations have gained favorable rulings or settlements in 57 percent of the ISDS cases launched to date.
Foreign corporations have “won” against Canada’s ban on hazardous waste exports, the Czech Republic’s decision to not bail out a bank, a Mexican municipality’s decision to not allow the expansion of a contaminated toxic waste facility, and a Canadian requirement for any and all firms obtaining oil concessions to contribute to research and development in the affected province.
Foreign firms and the success of their ISDS cases
Foreign firms have also proven successful in using the threat of an ISDS case to extract favorable settlements, which often oblige governments to pay large sums to the foreign firms. A government paid $900 million to a firm in one recent ISDS settlement.
ISDS settlements have also led governments to alter policies challenged by foreign corporations. An ISDS case that a U.S. chemical company launched against Canada’s ban on a toxic gasoline additive – one currently also banned in the United States – resulted in Canada overturning the ban. In another ISDS settlement, the German city of Hamburg was obliged to roll back environmental requirements on a Swedish corporation’s coal-fired power plant.
Without explanation, Brinkley chose simply to ignore all of the ISDS cases that were settled in favor of the foreign firm, distorting his “scoreboard” of ISDS case outcomes. And he did not mention that even when governments “win,” they are still on the hook for high legal costs and tribunal fees associated with defending these cases – an average of $8 million per case.
Investor-state disputes vs. state-state disputes
Brinkley’s accounting became even more confused when he conflated investor-state disputes withstate-state disputes – and similarly made a mish-mash of our critique. Brinkley appears not to realize the difference between the ISDS system, in which any covered foreign corporation claiming to have an investment in a country can drag a government to an extrajudicial tribunal to challenge its policies, and trade agreement dispute settlement in which cases may only be brought by government signatories to pacts.
He stated, for example, that “the aggrieved foreign investor can turn to a dispute settlement body at the…WTO [World Trade Organization].” False. The WTO only allows governments – not foreign corporations – to bring cases against governments.
Brinkley then picked one state-state dispute that the United States lost at the WTO and wondered why the UN did not include it in its list of investor-state cases against the United States. He added the lost WTO state-state case to his tally of investor-statechallenges that the United States has faced to date, and summarized his hodgepodge U.S. win-loss record as, “we’ll say 13-1.”
Brinkley seems unaware that in fact the United States has lost 61 out of 67state-state cases brought against it at the WTO – a 91 percent loss rate.
As for investor-state cases brought against the United States, few such cases exist thanks to the reality that 52 of the 54 countries with which the United States has an ISDS-enforced pact are not major FDI exporters. Brinkley appears strangely unconcerned that the U.S. government plans to dramatically expand its investor-state liability under the U.S.-EU deal, which would open the door to foreign investor claims from 11 of the world’s 20 largest FDI exporters.
The Loewen fluke
Brinkley also cited an ISDS case that Loewen, a Canadian funeral home conglomerate, launched against the U.S. government over Mississippi’s jury trial system and the standard common-law requirement to post bond before pursuing an appeal. (Loewen had lost a state court case battle against a rival funeral home operator.)
Brinkley argued that because the tribunal dismissed Loewen’s ISDS claim, there is no cause for concern. But the tribunal actually supported a number of Loewen’s claims on the merits. It only dismissed the case without imposing a penalty on the U.S. government thanks to a remarkable fluke: Loewen’s lawyers reincorporated the firm as a U.S. company, thus destroying its ability to obtain compensation as a “foreign” investor.
Such luck should not be expected to continue, particularly if, under the U.S.-EU deal, foreign investor privileges are granted to thousands of European firms operating here.
Before we subject our national treasury, our domestic firms or our laws to an unprecedented expansion of ISDS liability, we should take a cold, hard look at the legacy to date of this extraordinary system. It would help to start with actual facts.
Ms. Wallach and Mr. Beachy are the director and research director, respectively, of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.