from the heads-you-win,-tails-I-lose dept
Back in 2012, we wrote about Philip Morris using corporate sovereignty provisions in trade agreements to sue Australia and Uruguay over their attempts to reduce the number of deaths from smoking through plain packaging and other health measures. Since then, the case has become a textbook example of all that is wrong with investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).
For example, even though Philip Morris lost its battle in the Australian High Court to stop the introduction of plain packaging, it did not simply accept the ruling, but sought to use ISDS to nullify the court's decision. The natural instrument would be the trade agreement between the US and Australia, but the Australian government had wisely refused to accept a corporate sovereignty chapter there. So Philip Morris used an obscure 1993 trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong, which did have ISDS, claiming that its business activities in the latter territory gave it the right to invoke the treaty -- a classic example of "treaty shopping".
Since those events from a few years back, we've heard nothing about how the Philip Morris ISDS case is proceeding -- until now, since The West Australian newspaper has discovered the following fact:
More than [AU]$50 million [about US$35 million] of taxpayer money is expected to go up in smoke defending cigarette plain packaging in a secretive international tribunal in Singapore.
That's because the hearing will move on to the main issues, summarized here on the official Australian government Web page for the case:
But costs will pile much higher if Australia loses on its first defence that Philip Morris indulged in cynical "venue shopping" by shifting its headquarters to Hong Kong to sue Australia.
Philip Morris Asia is arguing that Australia's tobacco plain packaging measure constitutes an expropriation of its Australian investments in breach of Article 6 of the Hong Kong Agreement. Philip Morris Asia further argues that Australia's tobacco plain packaging measure is in breach of its commitment under Article 2(2) of the Hong Kong Agreement to accord fair and equitable treatment to Philip Morris Asia's investments. Philip Morris Asia further asserts that tobacco plain packaging constitutes an unreasonable and discriminatory measure and that Philip Morris Asia's investments have been deprived of full protection and security in breach of Article 2(2) of the Hong Kong Agreement.
The information obtained by The West Australian is significant, because it reveals the scale of the costs that a government must contemplate when defending itself against a corporate sovereignty claim. Given that background, it's easy to see why governments in these cases may choose to settle quickly, and to give the companies what they want, rather than risk mounting costs and a huge fine.
It's that fact that gives the lie to the claim that ISDS cannot force a government to change its laws. While that's true in theory, in practice governments are very likely to choose capitulation as the cheaper and easier option, recognizing that the whole process is biased against them. After all, unlike companies, a government can never win an ISDS case: the best it can hope for is not to lose.