Trade Agreements Are Designed To Give Companies Corporate Sovereignty

from the above-the-law dept

One of the difficulties of making people aware of the huge impact that investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses in TPP and TAFTA/TTIP are likely to have on their lives, is that the name is so boring, and so they tend to assume that what it describes is also boring and not worth worrying about. And yet what began as an entirely reasonable system for protecting investments in emerging economies with weak judiciaries, through the use of independent tribunals, has turned into a monster that now allows companies to place themselves above national laws, as Techdirt has reported before.

The acronym "ISDS" just doesn't capture any of that, so during a conversation on Twitter with Maira Sutton, Jamie Love and a couple of Techdirters (Mike and me), Joe Karaganis came up with a great alternative: "corporate sovereignty". That, in a couple of words, is what ISDS is really all about. It represents the rise of the corporation as an equal of the nation state, endowed with a financial sovereignty that allows it to claim compensation if its expectation of future profits is somehow diminished by a country's courts or legislative changes.

A link-rich page on Public Citizen's "Eyes on Trade" blog provides a timely introduction to the field. It's based on another interesting, but slightly more academic post by Todd N. Tucker, found on the Investment Policy Hub of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). That organization produces an extremely valuable annual review of the whole area of ISDS/corporate sovereignty, which is recommended if you want to get all the facts and figures.

Here's Public Citizen's summary of perhaps the most blatant attempt to assert corporate sovereignty so far:

In one of the Chevron v. Ecuador cases, a three-person tribunal last year ordered Ecuador's government to interfere in the operations of its independent court system on behalf of Chevron by suspending enforcement of a historic $18 billion judgment against the oil corporation for mass contamination of the Amazonian rain forest. The ruling against Chevron, rendered by Ecuador's courts, was the result of 18 years of litigation in both the U.S. and Ecuadorian legal systems. Ecuador had explained to the panel that compliance with any order to suspend enforcement of the ruling would violate the separation of powers enshrined in the country’s Constitution -- as in the United States, Ecuador's executive branch is constitutionally prohibited from interfering with the independent judiciary. Undeterred, the tribunal proceeded to order Ecuador "to take all measures at its disposal to suspend or cause to be suspended the enforcement or recognition within and without Ecuador of any judgment [against Chevron]."
As that notes, the tribunal was essentially telling the Ecuadorean government to place Chevron above the country's constitution -- an extraordinary state of affairs: imagine if the US government were ordered to do the same. Unfortunately, Ecuador's situation is one that is likely to become more common if the corporate sovereignty sections of TPP and TAFTA/TTIP make it into the final versions of those treaties.

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Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 12:39am

    I wonder how long it would take the US government to pull an about-face if companies started suing them under the same clauses. Of course, the large corporations know this, and know that the US is the biggest proponent of FTAs with ISDS, so the smart ones won't bite the hand that feeds them.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:02am

    Have money. Don't like law. Buy trade agreement. Kill law through ISDS.

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:05am

    The sad thing is that ISDS is meant for states with unreliable legal systems. So what the f*** is it doing in agreements like TTIP/TAFTA?

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:20am

    The travesti of it all, is that if the US or China where handed down the same rules they both along with a couple of other ignore it to the full extent their armies can.

    Remember that tiny little island in the middle of nowhere that won a case against the US?

     

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  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:34am

    Re:

    Because it is only enforceable in countries with reliable governments and legal systems.

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:52am

    Re: Re:

    then it shouldn't exist. That's shitty law. IT basically means that corporations have more rights then fucking nations. Not bad for imaginary people.

    Now, imagine when Glencore (already known to have directly contributed to overthrowing governments it didn't like) gets a hold of this...

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 2:16am

    and you can bet your ass they will make it into the final bills. the money that companies with 'foreign' interests must be throwing around must be substantial. and let's face it, those on the receiving end of that money aren't going to give a toss about any of the countries or the people in them!

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 2:41am

    Shadowrun

    In the Shadowrun tabletop RPG universe, the major corporations even have extraterritoriality.

    It saddens me to see that we are going in that direction.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Howard (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 2:45am

    Re: Re: Re:

    The next step: corporations (big enough) declared sovereign nations.
    Then:
    When a corporation can't buy the laws, they rely on deniable assets to do the dirty work. These assets are called Shadowrunners...

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Donglebert the Needlessly Obtuse, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 2:52am

    So why doesn't Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, AT&T

    and pretty much every internet or telecommunication company under the sun sue the US government for diminished future returns? It could reasonably be argued that the entire future value of the internet has been reduced because of the actions that allowed the NSA to act as it has.

    Even a tiny reduction in the massive potential value of the net would be billions.

     

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  11.  
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    PRMan, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:20am

    Time to put Chevron on a 1-year ban

    That's just evil. They earned their way onto my 1-year ban list. I suggest everyone else on here do the same. We can only vote with our money.

     

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  12.  
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    Ninja (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:29am

    Did Ecuador submit to the pressure? I mean the judiciary can just give them a fat middle finger and carry on, right?

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 4:07am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    It's amazing how much that RPG is shaping up to be like reality.

    Reality has an RPG bias, clearly.

     

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  14.  
    icon
    Anonymous Howard (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 4:39am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I'm starting to think that the creators of the SR universe were prescient on some level..

    That, or we're pretty much fucked.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:12am

    Re:

    It would most likely become pro-corporate Republicans supporting such a decision (especially if the case is about gutting environmental regulations, or increasing oil drilling in the US) and pro-environmental protection Democrats strongly opposing it (because the above two things are both seen as harming the environment to them).

     

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  16.  
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    Bengie, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:19am

    I want that right

    I wish I could sue for lost potential profits because something didn't go in my favor.

    I think I should be the CEO of Microsoft, since I'm not, I should be able to sue for lost profits!

     

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  17.  
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    The Real Michael, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:17am

    Maybe if sovereign nations stopped taking bribes and the people told the corporate entities to take a hike, all this nefarious crap would cease happening.

     

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  18.  
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    Bergman (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:57am

    Re: Shadowrun

    On the positive side, if a corporation has both extraterritoriality and sovereignty, then a nation could declare war on one and conquer it.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Chris Brand, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:48am

    Seems easy enough to me

    "Ecuador had explained to the panel that compliance with any order to suspend enforcement of the ruling would violate the separation of powers enshrined in the country’s Constitution -- as in the United States, Ecuador's executive branch is constitutionally prohibited from interfering with the independent judiciary. Undeterred, the tribunal proceeded to order Ecuador "to take all measures at its disposal to suspend or cause to be suspended the enforcement or recognition within and without Ecuador of any judgment [against Chevron].""

    So they turn around and say "done - we have no measures at our disposal".

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    any moose cow word, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:34am

    Re: Re: Shadowrun

    But then they would have to pay back all of the "lost" profits to the former shareholders.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    any moose cow word, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:39am

    Real entities with extraterritoriality and sovereignty can be corrected with sanctions and embargoes, but they don't get to sue for "future profits".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 11:41am

    Countries should refuse to give up their sovereignty

    "Undeterred, the tribunal proceeded to order Ecuador "to take all measures at its disposal to suspend or cause to be suspended the enforcement or recognition within and without Ecuador of any judgment [against Chevron]."

    Ecuador should do the opposite. Enforce the judgment by force, ridding Chevron of all its Ecuadorian properties and interests to the extent necessary to settle the debt, if necessary.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 3:24pm

    Re: So why doesn't Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Verizon, AT&T

    you, sir have a fantastic name. bravo.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Chris, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 4:49pm

    alternate phrase

    Perhaps /corporate immunity/ has a better ring to it, evoking /diplomatic immunity/.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Calm, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 4:47am

    Free Trade

    I think you need to research as far back as 1980 (Free Trade) and when the U.S. Capitalists deliberately set out to abandon the North American Continent and walk away from every promise made to the working class since the end of World War II.

    Free Trade was all about giving the rich folks an unfettered opportunity to move their wealth and assets offshore because the rich folks decided in 1980 to abandon the North American Continent, and to walk away from every promise made to the working class since the end of World War II.

    The Rich Folks had no intention of sticking around while 15 thousand people lined up each day to collect on the retirement benefits which were promised to the working class.

    The Rich Folks moved their accumulation of wealth offshore and out of reach to any worker who might want to sue and seize assets in lieu of broken promises.

    This is exactly what the Capitalists did in 1870 as the British economy bankrupted itself and the Rich Folks in Britian moved their wealth into North America.

    We did not see it happening because the U.S. Capitalists created an illusion of success with 15 trillion worth of Federal debt since 1980. (Not including 600 Trillion in Toxic Assets.) Prior to NAFTA being implemented, there was no U.S. Federal debt.

    The largest U.S. export to China is scrap metal and scrap paper.
    http://www.dotandcalm.com/calm-archive/EconomicNotes.html

    Calm

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 27th, 2013 @ 2:53am

    Re: Re: Re: Shadowrun

    Nah, Right of Conquest. As the defeated 'nation', they're pretty much shit out of luck if flat out annexed, and stck with what they're given otherwise. If not dead.

    Can you Imagine what having a middlingly sized country and it's allies declare war against it would do to a company's share value? Unless they looked likely to Win and actually annex territory, their shares would Tank.

    Heh. Gives a whole new meaning to the term 'hostile takeover'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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