Potential Issues with Enforcing International Arbitration Awards

By Arjun Ghosh

Arbitration is a useful way to settle commercial disputes because arbitration proceedings are usually faster and cheaper than traditional court proceedings. Parties can choose the governing law they wish to apply in advance as well as prescribe other features in the agreement, rather than be bound by the governing law in the jurisdiction where the proceeding is taking place. Traditional court proceedings are still preferred by some parties because when a court issues a judgment the winning party can rest assured that the government will enforce the award, even by force if necessary. In the United States, for example, if you were to win a judgment against another party in a court proceeding, and that party refused to pay the award, the court could send law enforcement officers to collect the payment.

When utilizing one country’s court system to settle an international dispute, however, enforcing an award in a country other than where the settlement was issued may become a problem. If an American company sues a Chinese company in an American court and wins, for example, the Chinese government is not required to dispatch their law enforcement officers to enforce an award issued by an American court. So while in domestic disputes, a court ruling is more enforceable than an arbitration award, in international disputes, arbitration awards are often more enforceable, and are therefore the preferred dispute resolution process. Arbitration awards can be easier to enforce than court awards because of international treaties; most notably, the New York Convention (NY Convention), which is ratified by 157 countries.

The NY Convention was first adopted by the United Nations in 1958. It stipulates two primary requirements for its members. First, members’ courts must recognize agreements between parties to arbitrate agreements (by for example, enforcing a mandatory arbitration agreement), and second, members must recognize and enforce any arbitration awards won in any other member state, with certain narrow exception.

While the NY Convention requires counties to honor these arbitration agreements, parties still have to go to court in the country where they seek to have their award enforced and have the court agree to enforce it. The NY Convention simply prescribes the court’s action in such an event. The NY Convention accomplishes this by requiring its members to pass laws which direct its courts to honor and enforce international arbitration awards. For example, in the United States the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) requires courts to enforce foreign awards.

Like in domestic court proceedings, there are certain circumstances which might lead to a situation where an award is justifiably unenforceable. The NY Convention, like domestic laws, describes several situations in which a country may refuse to enforce an international arbitration award. For example, if a party to the arbitration was under some incapacity, or was coerced, or the victim of fraud, or several other situations described in the convention, then a court may be justified in not enforcing the award. In addition to the more general defenses a country may use to justify not enforcing an award, there are some specific reservations that counties may apply. For example, a country may choose to only recognize and enforce awards issued by other member countries, or only awards that are related to commercial disputes.

Currently, 157 countries have signed onto the NY Convention. Forty United Nations member nations, however, have not signed on. While most commercial transactions are occurring in countries that are signatories, there are some notable countries missing, Belize and Taiwan for example.

It is essential when entering into an international arbitration proceeding to select a signatory country as a forum, so that parties may have confidence in their ability to resolve a dispute and have the award enforced. Many international disputes have involved companies based in Taiwan and Belize or other non-signatory countries where foreign parties are unable to collect the awards they have won because those governments refuse to enforce awards. In a current case pending before the Supreme Court of Belize, Belize Bank Limited v. Government of Belize, the Bank seeks to force the government of Belize to enforce an award it won through an international arbitration. The ruling was struck down by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as unenforceable in Belize as a matter of public policy. Belize Bank is now in the process of trying to have the award enforced in the U.S. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on the case and upheld the arbitration award in favor of Belize Bank, but the government of Belize rejected that judgment. They claimed first that they were not bound by decisions of US courts, and also that Belize Bank had no right to seek enforcement in U.S. courts because the CCJ is the highest regional judicial tribunal and therefore their decisions not subject to appeal.

Even given these limitations, enforcing an international arbitration award in a non-signatory country is possible, though it often requires a strategic application of local law. The U.S. has a policy on enforcement of international arbitration awards which provides guidance for addressing this increasingly common issue. The main strategy that the party seeking enforcement must use in such situations is employing economic leverage, and we can look back to Taiwan for an example.

Even though Taiwan is not a signatory to the NY Convention, it is a sophisticated player in international commerce and needs a viable mechanism in place for successful and complete commercial dispute resolution, or commercial activity would be greatly hampered. A party seeking to enforce an arbitration award in Taiwan will try to have a local Taiwanese court recognize the award, even though the NY Convention will not require them to. Instead, Taiwan has its own version of the FAA, the Taiwan Arbitration Act (TAA) which guides its arbitration proceedings. One of these guidelines is that the enforcement of arbitral awards be guided by the reciprocity principle, meaning that Taiwan will enforce arbitral awards rendered in countries that recognize and enforce arbitral awards rendered in Taiwan. Since Taiwan relies on trade with many other NY Convention signatory countries, they have essentially, with the TAA, bound their courts to enforce arbitral awards rendered in NY Convention countries, or fear economic retaliation in the form of loss of business or trade sanctions.

To mitigate these concerns, corporations should aim to engage in large-scale commercial transactions only with NY Convention signatory countries or with companies with substantial assets in signatory countries. Even in non-signatory countries, because of the increasing interdependence of national economies and growing trade, alternative strategies may be used to influence governments to encourage their courts to enforce international arbitration agreements. When large-scale international commercial disputes occur the stakes are usually quite high and the party seeking relief will want some assurance of justice. International treaties have increased the amount of certainty that parties can have when entering into these cross-border transactions, but because not all countries have signed onto the NY convention, there is still some uncertainty inherent in these transactions.

TTIP and ISDS, Are We Asking the Right Questions?

TTIP and ISDS, Are We Asking the Right Questions?

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By: Gabriel Simões

The System and Its Critiques

The Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) is an international treaty that is being negotiated between the United States and the European Union (E.U.) to facilitate the trade of goods, services and investment. TTIP involves two of the biggest economic forces in the world, but the Treaty has been in the spotlight of international law primarily because of the Investment-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system.

ISDS refers to a mechanism through which an investor can initiate a claim against a given State for breach of a substantive legal protection. These protections include, but are not limited to, prohibitions on expropriation without compensation, and fair and equitable treatment. Backed by a multitude of Bilateral (BITs) or Multilateral Investment Treaties, arbitration has been the typical means of solving these kinds of disputes.

However, during recent years, the use of arbitration for solving these disputes has been severely criticized. News organizations, civil society groups, and academics have directed a wide range of indictments against investor-state arbitration. These critiques include lack of transparency, disproportionate power to investors, expansion of frivolous claims, freezing of State regulatory power, lack of arbitrator impartiality and independence and inconsistency of arbitral awards.

The E.U. Alternative

Due to these concerns, the European Commission made a proposal to change the ISDS mechanism to an Investment Court (IC). The proposed IC would be a permanent body comprised of a two instance tribunal. The first instance would be composed of five judges from the U.S., five judges from the E.U. and five judges from various other countries. The second instance, an appeals court, would be composed of two judges from the U.S., two from the E.U. and two from third-party countries. The judges would be elected amongst jurists of recognized competence, and would have to be proficient in international law.

Similar courts have already been established, such as a court between the E.U. and Canada, in the E.U. Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), as well as between the E.U. and Vietnam, in their Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

E.U. agreements in the CETA and FTA, as well as its proposal in the TTIP negotiation, show its commitment to enacting this new type of ISDS in its future trade agreements. Given the global significance of the E.U. market, this push for adopting an IC system begs the question whether this new form of ISDS would become the rule.

The preliminary factor in making this determination is examining whether the model is actually adopted in the TTIP. Although the E.U. itself is making a strong push for an IC system, other major economic forces have so far refused to do so.

The recent Transpacific Trade Partnership (TTP) concluded by the U.S. and several other states indicates that the American position would be contrary to that proposed by the European Commission. The TTP maintained a revamped version of investor-state arbitration as the elected mechanism for dispute settlement. It addressed some of the critiques to investor-state arbitration, for example, by providing for enhanced transparency, creating stricter ethical rules on arbitrators and numerous exceptions preserving State regulatory powers.

Another aspect to this negotiation is the historical reluctance of the U.S. to be bound by the judgements of international courts. Although the E.U. has a unique system that it could put in place to enforce the IC decisions on member States (despite some critiques as to its incompatibility with the E.U. rules), the U.S. has, in the past, accepted an agreement to form an international judicial body only to repudiate its jurisdiction later on.

The Problems With the Alternative

But the crucial matter is whether the IC system solves the problems attributed to investor-state arbitration. Although a court system can ameliorate the problem of lack of transparency, current arbitration institutions have already come a long way to address this issue. The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) keeps an extensive online database of its cases. The TTP model also demonstrates that transparency rules can be used in conjunction with arbitration mechanisms.

The matters regarding disproportionate power to investors, expansion of frivolous claims and freezing of State regulatory power, are all related to the substantial protections provided for the investors. These protections are not inherent to one dispute resolution mechanism, but can be addressed by including provisions allowing for prima facie dismissal of claims, counterclaims by the State and reservations for claims arising from State power to regulate.

The only critiques that are inherent to the current model of investor-state dispute resolution are the lack of arbitrator impartiality or independence and the inconsistency of arbitral awards. However, the fact that each treaty in the new IC model creates its own courts indicates that overall consistency of decisions would be a dubious achievement at best. And, impartiality and independence of the judges will depend entirely on the means of appointment as well as remuneration. Allowing states to nominate all judges is a way to guarantee a pro state tribunal. Having remuneration based on a case-by-case basis would enact incentives for judges to be friendlier to plaintiffs, as receiving more cases would generate higher compensation.

Nonetheless, these arguments do not begin to address the inherent problems of this IC system.

The Question

It seems, therefore, that IC and investor-state arbitration mechanisms, and especially their shortcomings, are not completely distinct. Corroborating this assumption is the fact that, ultimately, the critiques seem to remain the same for both instruments, and the ISDS system in general.

Having these facts in mind, it seems that whether a court system or an arbitration system is preferable is a subsidiary question. Maybe a better question would be if ISDS, in general, is the best way to solve international trade disputes between investors and states.

Gabriel Simões is an LL.M Candidate at Berkeley Law. He is a Student Contributor for Travaux.