What to Do About Corrupt Arbitral Tribunals?

Discussions of corruption in the context of international arbitration typically focus on how arbitral tribunals handle corruption allegations in the cases before them. But there is a wholly separate issue that is often glossed over or ignored: corruption in the arbitral proceedings themselves. And I’m not just talking about the concern—stressed by numerous prominent figures in the arbitration community—about potential conflicts of interest in the system for constructing the tribunals. That concern is a real and serious one, but there is also a more direct and crude problem: parties (or their lawyers) bribing, or making backdoor deals with, the arbitrators to secure a favorable outcome. Last November, Stephen Jagusch QC discussed the routine nature of certain forms of corruption in the arbitration process. He highlighted this claim by repeating a boast he had heard from a presiding arbitrator that year: the arbitrator was “[able] to deliver a good result providing the party appointing him was prepared to share the result with him.” A similar story of corruption and bribery occurred last year in Italy in an arbitral proceeding between AmTrust and Somma. The saga culminated in AmTrust using in U.S. federal court to block the arbitral award, claiming that Somma had offered on the arbitrators 10% of the final award if the one of the arbitrators found in Somma’s favor. Although the case was ultimately settled, the questions about impropriety in the arbitral process remain.

There are two avenues for handling corruption in the arbitral process, but unfortunately neither provides an adequate guard against potentially corrupt activity conducted by arbitrators: Continue reading

Corruption as a Jurisdictional Barrier in Investment Arbitration: Consequences and Solutions

As has been explored on this blog and elsewhere, corruption is a controversial topic in investor-state arbitration disputes. First emerging as a defense by states seeking to avoid liability, multiple tribunals have refused to enforce arbitration contracts tainted by corruption (see World Duty Free v Kenya and Plama Consortium v Bulgaria). Corruption has also been used as a cause of action by investors claiming unfair treatment (see Yukos v Russian Federation and here). The unclear incentive effects of corruption in arbitration proceedings have been analyzed from different angles—whether it provides countries with perverse incentives that might encourage corruption or instead buttresses anticorruption principles and promotes accountability.

Unfortunately, less attention has been paid to the procedural step at which tribunals discuss corruption. In the past ten years, an increasing number of tribunals are evaluating evidence of corruption at the jurisdictional stage of arbitration rather than at the merits stage. Those readers who are not lawyers (and even those who are), may be wondering, “Who cares? Why does it matter if corruption is treated as a ‘jurisdictional’ issue as opposed to a ‘merits’ issue?”

Actually, it matters a lot.  Continue reading

Is Corruption an Emerging Cause of Action in Investor-State Arbitration?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) has attracted unprecedented public interest in investor-state arbitration—also known as investment treaty arbitration, investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS. Sovereign nations and foreign investors may choose this process as an alternative to ordinary litigation in domestic courts, by submitting their claims before a panel of expert judges applying international law. Though some critics seem to suggest that ISDS imposes a static list of economic rules, arbitration actually applies a complex system of legal principles which balance investor security against the sovereign autonomy of host states. Over time, investor-state arbitration has proven to be an emerging space for enforcing international norms—including transparency and anticorruption. Indeed, the TPP demonstrates this growing influence of anticorruption norms in ISDS. Not only is the TPP the first multilateral trade agreement to explicitly require anticorruption commitments from its members, its ISDS chapter will also commit members to the anticorruption rules emerging in investor-state arbitration.

Since long before the earliest discussions of the TPP, arbitral panels have sometimes used anticorruption norms to interpret treaties and contracts that made no mention of anticorruption or transparency. Indeed, although no previous trade or investment treaty has obligated host states or investors to observe anticorruption standards, ISDS panels have increasingly considered corruption relevant, and even dispositive, in determining liability. This process has enabled the development of what is effectively a common law of anticorruption principles. (Although there is no doctrine of stare decisis in investor-state arbitration, arbitral decisions provide persuasive authority in future disputes, and particular decisions may gain influence and recognition comparable to precedent. An arbitral panel has discretion to consider other public international law authorities, including previous investor-state disputes, international commercial arbitration between two private companies, public international courts, and ad hoc bodies such as the Iran-US Claims Tribunal. All of these systems have helped contribute to the emerging anticorruption norms in ISDS.)

Arbitral panels considering corruption have most often treated it as a “shield”—that is, as a defense against liability. But while recent panels and commentators have questioned the merits of a “corruption defense,” recent cases hint at the emergence of a freestanding cause of action for corruption—as a sword rather than a shield. This potential shift suggests that, in addition to the the TPP’s express transparency and anticorruption terms, the ISDS chapter may offer hidden tools for anticorruption enforcement.

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Rescission of Contracts and Revocation of Licenses As Means to Combat Corruption

Article 34 of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) generally requires that each State Party “take measures … to address the consequences of corruption.” In recognition of the fact that government contracts and licensing processes have been among the areas most prone to corruption and bribery–and of the fact that the threat of criminal punishment may not be a sufficient or even viable deterrent to such corruption–UNCAC Article 34 further declares that “States Parties may consider corruption a relevant factor in legal proceedings to annul or rescind a contract, withdraw a concession or other similar instrument or take any other remedial action.” Although that second sentence of Article 34 is not mandatory, State Parties–particularly demand-side countries with an unfortunate reputation for corruption in government contracting (such as Kenya, Guinea, Indonesia and Philippines) should adopt that principle into their national laws.

Law providing for the nullification of contracts or concessions procured through corruption would be a strong deterrent to bribe-paying by firms. Although such bribery is already illegal, in some cases criminal punishments are simply insufficient to deter corrupt practices conducted in demand-side countries. Often the threat of sanctions is low, and even though some companies have been hit with substantial sanctions, this loss has been mitigated by the profits acquired by the operation of the tainted contract or license. And a company might think twice before acceding to a bribe demand from a lower-level public official (or even a high-level official) if the company knows that, by paying the bribe, they may be putting the whole contract in jeopardy if the government later decides it wants to reneg on the deal. Moreover, if a demand-side country were to adopt a law that allows for nullification of any government contract or concession procured through corruption, it would send strong signals to that international community that this country will no longer tolerate these corrupt practices. Continue reading

Investment Arbitration as a Check on Corruption: The Yukos Award

In a previous post on this blog, Sam raised the possibility that under the logic of World Duty Free v. Kenya, investment treaty arbitration rules might actually encourage state officials to engage in corruption, because corrupt acts by an investor (even when the state is also implicated) can be used to escape state liability in investment arbitration. Even if Sam’s point is true, however, it is important to acknowledge that investment arbitration can be a check on corruption in many instances. In fact, as the Yukos v. Russian Federation award issued against the Russian government this past summer demonstrates, Sam may be pointing out the exception, not the rule. Indeed, this $50 billion award – the largest international arbitration award in history – demonstrates the power of investment arbitration to bring corruption to light and act as an outside check on corrupt states. Continue reading

Guinean, American Anticorruption Investigators Tear Up the “Best Private Mining Deal of Our Generation”

The mining mogul Benny Steinmetz was once feted for the “best private mining deal of our generation,” after his company secured Africa’s richest iron ore deposit in Simandou, Guinea. Today, the deal “lies in ruins.” A two-year investigation by Guinea’s government has found that Steinmetz’s firm BSGR used corrupt practices to win its mining rights from Ahmed Sekou Touré, Guinea’s former dictator, . The company has now been stripped of these rights. Meanwhile, the FBI has Steinmetz on tape authorizing millions of dollars in payments to the wife of a former Guinean dictator. A BSGR associate, Frederic Cilins, has pled guilty to obstructing an FCPA inquiry into the mining deal in a Manhattan court; Swiss prosecutors are looking to question Steinmetz himself. Perhaps unbelievably for Benny Steinmetz, anticorruption authorities around the world have responded furiously to a clandestine deal in an overlooked, West African backwater.

Four takeaways from these incredible developments, after the jump.

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Could FCPA Investigations Influence International Arbitration?

Is it possible for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and other domestic anti-corruption regimes to influence the outcomes of international investment arbitrations? In my last post, I showed how allegations of corruption could be relevant in investment treaty arbitration, both as a “sword” wielded by investors, and as a “shield” used by sovereign states. In this post, I consider how evidence from domestic anti-corruption proceedings could be used in arbitration, and what effects its use might have on the international system. Continue reading