The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) describes bilateral investment agreements as “the most important protection of international foreign investment.” Investment liberalization has always been controversial. Attempts to negotiate a multilateral agreement on investment at the World Trade Organization or the OECD have failed to come up with a binding agreement and met with significant popular opposition. Many governments, especially poorer ones, have been wary of the claims made about investment liberalization and have opposed moves to make a global agreement which would bind them to open up their economies by removing all regulations on foreign investment. The success of that opposition is a major reason why there are now so many bilateral investment agreements throughout the world. Such agreements create more rights and powers for foreign investors — particularly the transnational corporations which dominate the global economy.

At some time, most countries have imposed regulations on investors in line with national development priorities. They wanted to try to ensure that foreign investment would benefit the host country as well as the investor. Many governments determined that foreign investors could not own more than a certain percentage of telecommunications or other strategic national infrastructure sectors or set conditions on ownership. Many countries imposed performance requirements on foreign investors so that they had to hire a certain proportion of local workers, or use a particular level of local content.

Environmental, health and safety legislation set standards in order to ensure that foreign investments were not detrimental to the environment and the health and safety of the workers and the public. Labour and environmental laws are also being aggressively targeted in the negotiations and implementation of international trade and investment agreements. The right of current and future governments to set regulations is being constrained by participation in such international investment agreements.

Foreign investors want governments to give them and their investments no less favourable treatment than domestic investors and their investments. By including broad definitions of terms like “investor” and “investment”, most bilateral free trade and investment agreements offer very broad protection to foreign investors, including rights under contract, their rights of establishment and entry as well as its operations and exit. Under many bilateral free trade and investment agreements, all sectors of the economy are covered unless explicit reservations are made in the agreement’s annexes.

Investor-state dispute mechanisms in bilateral free trade and investment agreements give investors enforceable rights to take their cases directly to international arbitration, sidestepping domestic courts and in virtual secrecy. These procedures are costly to defend for governments, and often result in decisions that multi-million dollar compensation be paid to TNCs or other foreign investors, as well as casting a chilling effect on present and future investment rule-making. Through secretive and binding disputes mechanisms in these agreements, foreign investors — often TNCs — are able to challenge any government law, measure, omission or policy which they claim adversely affects their investment. Many of these disputes are lodged by corporations which have taken over provision of privatized services such as water. For example, Argentina and Bolivia have both been targeted by water TNCs using investor-state dispute mechanisms under bilateral investment agreements, following major debacles around water privatization in cities like Tucuman, Bahia Blanca and Cochabamba. Another recent instance of investor-state disputes over issues of public policy include Philip Morris’s claims against Uruguay and Australia over the respective governments’ laws on cigarette marketing and packaging. In the first instance, Philip Morris used a Switzerland-Uruguay bilateral investment treaty to challenge pictorial health warnings on cigarette packets and a law which states that 80% of the package be devoted to public health warnings.

Bilateral deals provide a step-by-step approach which can form a launch pad for more comprehensive multilateral agreements in the future. Once governments have signed on to bilateral investment agreements, it will be harder to resist global agreements on investment at the multilateral level. Recently, investor-state dispute mechanisms have been cited as major concerns in Korea (as the Korea-US FTA was ratified), by Indian officials who insist that they will not enter into FTAs which have investor-state clauses, and by the Argentinian government over its refusal to pay compensation to two US companies after ICSID rulings, and subsequent suspension of trade benefits by the Obama administration in early 2012. A clear priority for the US Administration and corporate sector is liberalizing China’s investment regulations to open up the economy further to American capital.

last update: May 2012


     EN   ES   FR 
  • 2-Oct-2015 South Centre Foreign direct investment, investment agreements and economic development: myths and realities
    Foreign direct investment (FDI) is one of the most ambiguous and the least understood concepts in international economics. Common debate on FDI is confounded by several myths regarding its nature and impact.
  • 2-Oct-2015 Kluwer Arbitration Blog A need for preventive investment protection?
    There is an obvious need at the investors’ side for a mechanism making it possible to prevent the threatened violation of their investment. It is fair to say that where the violation of the investment is still only potential, notifying the dispute should be the primary tool for investment protection.
  • 1-Oct-2015 La Tribune Traité transatlantique : la fin de l’arbitrage ?
    La très contestée procédure d’arbitrage prévue dans la futur traité transatlantique ne verra donc pas le jour. Mais cela change-t-il vraiment quelque chose?
  • 30-Sep-2015 Focus Online Murray Rankin v. Canada
    Rankin acted on behalf of an American mining corporation in its successful bid to sue Canada using NAFTA.
  • 30-Sep-2015 Bretton Woods Project Corporate bias at the World Bank Group
    This briefing finds significant ICSID bias in favour of corporations and commercial interests by analysing ICSID overall and by looking at a specific case brought by a global mining corporation against El Salvador.
  • 29-Sep-2015 Vieuws EU to co-finance Investment Court System in TTIP from its budget
    The European Commission wants the new Investment Court System (ICS) in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to be co-financed from the EU budget only, Mauro Petriccione, Deputy Director-General at DG Trade has told MEPs.
  • 29-Sep-2015 The Argentina Independent El Salvador vs Pacific Rim: the price of saying ‘no’ to a gold mine
    El Salvador is defending itself against a US$301m lawsuit filed after it blocked a mining project to protect the country’s heavy-polluted water supply. The imminent verdict will set a precedent amid a growing trend of companies suing governments when they can’t exploit their natural resources.
  • 25-Sep-2015 Tele Sur Toxic waste dumped on poorest Ecuadoreans for 26 years but Chevron has yet to pay
    Canadians must now counter Chevron’s inevitable propaganda campaign as the legal battle continues.
  • 23-Sep-2015 SUNS Investment accords - conceptual & procedural contentions
    Particular issues and procedures in investment treaties have proved especially contentious at both conceptual and practical levels.
  • 23-Sep-2015 SUNS International trade, investment accords, increasing controversies
    Two recent proposals on settling investment disputes have begun to attract attention and consideration in national and international circles.
  • 0 | 10 | 20 | 30 | 40 | 50 | 60 | 70 | 80 | ... | 670


    The European Federation for Investment Law and Arbitration (EFILA) has been established in Brussels to promote the knowledge of all aspects of EU and international investment law, including arbitration, at the European level
    Website dedicated to enlarging the public debate on the EU’s controversial policies for investment protections and investor-to-state dispute settlement systems (ISDS) in the EU-US and EU-Canada trade negotiations.
    International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes is an autonomous international organisation, linked to the World Bank. It is the most ’referred to’ arbitration facility for disputes under bilateral trade and investment agreements, with its own set of rules and procedures.
  • IISD page on bilateral investment rules
    International Institute for Sustainable Development carries out analysis and information work on regional and bilateral investment rules and their implications for sustainable development.
  • Investment Treaty Arbitration
    ITA serves as a resource for lawyers, academics, government officials, researchers and members of civil society who are interested in international investment law. It provides: access to all publicly available investment treaty awards; information and resources relating to investment treaties and investment treaty arbitration; and links to further resources.
  • Investment Treaty News
    ITN is a web-based platform for discussion and debate, as well as providing regular journalistic reporting on developments and trends in international investment law, hosted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
  • ISDS: Corporate attacks on the public interest
    Public Citizen website about ISDS, including petition to US government
  • italaw
    Comprehensive and free database on investment treaties, international investment law and investor-state arbitration.
  • Network for Justice in Global Investment
    The Network for Justice in Global Investment is a joint effort by citizens and organizations in a variety of countries to challenge one of the most anti-democratic aspects of the global economic order – the rules governing international investment.
  • The Chevron Pit
    A blog maintained by the team suing Chevron for the oil giant’s human rights problems in Ecuador and across the world
    United Nations Commission on International Trade Law is a body under the UN General Assembly mandated to unfiy international trade law. Disputes between investors and states under many FTAs and BITs are arbitrated, in private, according to UNCITRAL rules. UNCITRAL itself does not administer arbitrations.
  • UNCTAD IIA programme
    The UN Conference on Trade and Development has a work programme on International Investment Agreements, including research and publications on bilateral investment treaties.