Investment Rules Not Fixed by May 2007 Preamble Change

By Todd Tucker, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch

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NAFTA-style trade deals contain investment rules that allow corporations to bypass national legal systems and launch attacks on governments in international tribunals. The basis for these attacks can be as simple as institution of a new environmental policy that affects the corporation’s expected future profits. Judges for these so-called “investor-state” cases are selected in part by the corporation, and the trade-pact rules are tailored to corporate demands. Often the mere threat of one of these investor-state awards can cast a chill on public-interest regulation. All told, more than $350 million has been paid to date in these cases. Moreover, there are over $9.1 billion in claims in the 13 investor-state cases outstanding under NAFTAstyle deals, relating to environmental, public health, and transportation policy. An additional $483 million has been awarded under U.S. Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs), which contain similar investment rules. Billions of dollars are also pending in BIT cases now underway.

The Panama, Colombia and Korea “free trade agreements” (FTA) may be considered by Congress in the near future. These pacts constain investment rules that are almost identical to those in NAFTA, except where they are worse. There was one investment-related addition made to the preambles of these FTAs as part of a May 10, 2007 deal with the Bush administration. It stated that the parties: “AGREE that foreign investors are not hereby accorded greater substantive rights with respect to investment protections than domestic investors under domestic law where, as in the United States, protections of investor rights under domestic law equal or exceed those set forth in this Agreement.…”

Some have suggested that this provision goes all or most of the way towards resolving the concerns with these provisions. This is not the case. There is no certainty as to the legal meaning of the May 2007 preambular provision, as has been noted in the American Journal of International Law. This memo examines six different approaches to preambular language, including the four that have been taken by the tribunals under the 45 final awards issued under U.S. FTAs and BITs, and finds the May 2007 preambular modification fails to address the main concerns raised by scholars and members of Congress with regard to the investment provisions. Indeed, there is scant historical support for the notion that pro-public interest provisions of preambles are protective of regulatory prerogatives: nearly 90 percent of the time, tribunals have given them no weight at all. Deeper changes will be required to the investment provisions of the proposed FTAs with Korea, Panama and Colombia, as well as a Trans-Pacific FTA (which includes Peru, the U.S. and eight other countries) now under negotiation.