A parallel legal universe, open only to corporations and largely invisible to everyone else, helps executives convicted of crimes escape punishment. In this court, a nation that tries to prosecute a corrupt CEO or ban dangerous pollution can be sued for millions, even billions of dollars for ‘interfering with profits’. A investigative series from BuzzFeed.
Imagine a private, global super court that empowers corporations to bend countries to their will.
Say a nation tries to prosecute a corrupt CEO or ban dangerous pollution. Imagine that a company could turn to this super court and sue the whole country for daring to interfere with its profits, demanding hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars as retribution.
Imagine that this court is so powerful that nations often must heed its rulings as if they came from their own supreme courts, with no meaningful way to appeal. That it operates unconstrained by precedent or any significant public oversight, often keeping its proceedings and sometimes even its decisions secret. That the people who decide its cases are largely elite Western corporate attorneys who have a vested interest in expanding the court’s authority because they profit from it directly, arguing cases one day and then sitting in judgment another. That some of them half-jokingly refer to themselves as “The Club” or “The Mafia.”
And imagine that the penalties this court has imposed have been so crushing — and its decisions so unpredictable — that some nations dare not risk a trial, responding to the mere threat of a lawsuit by offering vast concessions, such as rolling back their own laws or even wiping away the punishments of convicted criminals.
This system is already in place, operating behind closed doors in office buildings and conference rooms in cities around the world. Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, it is written into a vast network of treaties that govern international trade and investment, including NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Congress must soon decide whether to ratify.
These trade pacts have become a flashpoint in the US presidential campaign. But an 18-month BuzzFeed News investigation, spanning three continents and involving more than 200 interviews and tens of thousands of documents, many of them previously confidential, has exposed an obscure but immensely consequential feature of these trade treaties, the secret operations of these tribunals, and the ways that business has co-opted them to bring sovereign nations to heel.
The BuzzFeed News investigation explores four different aspects of ISDS. In coming days, it will show how the mere threat of an ISDS case can intimidate a nation into gutting its own laws, how some financial firms have transformed what was intended to be a system of justice into an engine of profit, and how America is surprisingly vulnerable to suits from foreign companies.
The series starts 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.
When the US Congress votes on whether to give final approval to the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama staunchly supports, it will be deciding on a massive expansion of ISDS. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton oppose the overall treaty, but they have focused mainly on what they say would be the loss of American jobs. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, has voiced concern about ISDS in particular, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has lambasted it. Last year, members of both houses of Congress tried to keep it out of the Pacific trade deal. They failed.
ISDS is basically binding arbitration on a global scale, designed to settle disputes between countries and foreign companies that do business within their borders. Different treaties can mandate slightly different rules, but the system is broadly the same. When companies sue, their cases are usually heard in front of a tribunal of three arbitrators, often private attorneys. The business appoints one arbitrator and the country another, then both sides usually decide on the third together.
Conceived of in the 1950s, the system was intended to benefit both developing nations and the foreign companies that sought to invest in them. The companies would gain a fair, neutral referee if a rogue regime seized their property or discriminated against them in favor of domestic companies. And the countries would gain the roads or hospitals or industries that those foreign corporations would, as a result, feel confident building.
“It works,” said Charles Brower, a longtime ISDS arbitrator. “Like any system of law, there will be disappointments; you’re dealing with human systems. But this system fundamentally produces as good justice as the federal courts of the United States.”
He defended the lawyers who often serve as arbitrators, saying they “are very aware of their responsibilities. Unlike politicians, we are up for election every minute of every day — somewhere in the world, somebody is trying to figure out whom to appoint in a case. We’re only as good as our reputations.”
As proof that ISDS delivers justice, Brower pointed to a wave of nationalizations by the Venezuelan government, many while Hugo Chávez was in charge, that led to “huge awards against them for uncompensated expropriation.”
ISDS has not only put rapacious leaders on notice, its defenders say, but it has also encouraged investment, especially in poor countries, helping to raise overall economic development. Some even say that it helps avoid gunboat diplomacy and tense international showdowns because countries have agreed on a forum where they can resolve disputes involving major investments.
But over the last two decades, ISDS has morphed from a rarely used last resort, designed for egregious cases of state theft or blatant discrimination, into a powerful tool that corporations brandish ever more frequently, often against broad public policies that they claim crimp profits.
Because the system is so secretive, it is not possible to know the total number of ISDS cases, but lawyers in the field say it is skyrocketing. Indeed, of the almost 700 publicly known cases across the last half century, more than a tenth were filed just last year.
ISDS has morphed from a rarely used last resort into a powerful tool that corporations brandish ever more frequently.
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.”