ISDS allows foreign investors to sue our Government

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) pitfalls

Not a fair legal system

ISDS gives special rights to foreign investors (that are not available to local investors) to bypass national courts and sue governments for millions of dollars if they can claim that a change in law or policy will harm their investment.

The tribunals consist of investment lawyers who can continue to be practicing lawyers, with obvious conflicts of interest. Australia’s High Court Chief Justice and other legal experts have said that ISDS is not a fair legal system because it has no independent judges, no precedents and no appeals. There are over 850 outstanding cases, many against health, environment and other public interest laws.

Increasing numbers of ISDS cases against public interest legislation

Recent ISDS cases against health, environment and other public interest legislation include:

  • Public health: The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis threatened to sue the Colombian government over plans to reduce the price of a patented medicine to treat leukaemia. Read about more cases here.

  • Environment: the US Bilcon company won millions of dollars of compensation from Canada of because its application for a quarry development was refused by a local government for environmental reasons. The US Westmoreland coal mining company is suing the Canadian government because the state of Alberta decided to phase out coal-powerd energy. Read about more cases here 

  • Workers wages: The French Veolia company is suing the Egyptian government over a contract dispute in which they are claiming compensation for a rise in the minimum wage.

  • Indigenous land rights: An ISDS tribunal ordered the Peruvian government to pay $24 million to the Canadian Bear Creek mining company because it cancelled a mining license after the company failed to obtain informed consent from Indigenous land owners about the mine, leading to mass protests. ISDS rewarded the company for ignoring Indigenous land rights. 

  • Privatisation: Mexican transport company ADO has threatened Portugal with a €42 million ISDS case after it cancelled plans to privatise part of Lisbon's public transport network. 

Philip Morris tobacco company vs Australia

Even if a government wins the case, defending it can take years and cost tens of millions of dollars. For example, tobacco companies lost their claim for compensation for Australia’s 2011 plain packaging legislation in Australia’s High Court.  The US-based Philip Morris company did not accept this decision under Australian law. The company could not sue under the US-Australia FTA because that agreement had no ISDS clause. The company found a Hong Kong-Australia investment agreement containing ISDS, shifted some assets to Hong Kong, claimed to be a Hong Kong company and sued the Australian Government, claiming billions in compensation. It took over four years and millions in legal fees for the tribunal to decide the threshold issue in December 2015 that Philip Morris was not a Hong Kong company.

Although the tribunal in July 2017 eventually awarded a proportion of the legal and arbitration costs to Australia, the proportion and amount of the costs were blacked out in the tribunal’s cost decision. This is a failure of public accountability both by the tribunal and the Australian government, as taxpayers have a right to know the costs of defending ISDS cases. Community organisations called for the Australian government to reveal the costs. The government initially appealed an Australian Information Commissioner decision that it should reveal the costs, but finally revealed on July 2, 2018 that the legal costs were $39 million. The proportion of costs awarded to Australia has still not been revealed.

This confirms that, even if governments win ISDS cases, defending them takes years (in this case seven years before costs were awarded) and tens of millions of dollars. 

Learn more

Updated July 2018

Media Release: Government concealed failure to cancel the old, worse version of ISDS in new Indonesia trade deal

April 11, 2019: “Detailed scrutiny of the text of the recent Indonesia trade deal has revealed that there are no provisions to cancel the old 1993 Indonesia-Australia bilateral investment agreement, which will remain in force along side the new agreement.

Media Release: Hong Kong FTA would still allow foreign investors to sue our government, says AFTINET

Tuesday, March 26, 2019: “The Australia-Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement and separate Investment Agreement signed today still give special rights to foreign investors to bypass national courts and sue governments for millions of dollars in international tribunals if they can argue that a change in law or policy would harm their investment, known as Investor-State

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