Kabir Duggal picture


Dr Kabir Duggal

Iryna Glushchenko picture


Mrs. Iryna Glushchenko

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Human Rights in Investment Claims

I. Introduction


Human rights can boast universal acceptance and a well-developed system of specialized courts and tribunals. Although there does not seem to be objections to human rights being relevant to all spheres of life and deserving of consideration, there is criticism regarding the effectiveness of the human rights legal system.1 The system of investment protection has, in recent years, become increasingly intertwined with other areas of international law – mostly with human rights and environmental law.


As issues related to protection of human rights arise in investment arbitration, it is undoubtedly important to have them considered within the disputes they arise in. However, their role, function and means in investment arbitration remain unclear.

II. Legal framework of human rights in investment arbitration

A. Treaties

1. Bilateral and multilateral investment treaties


Most bilateral and multilateral investment treaties do not contain provisions on human rights,2 making it complicated to bring claims related to human rights under such instruments.


Clauses providing for a respect of human rights were progressively introduced in the new generation of investment treaties. Some of these additions are:

  • Provisions taking into account selected human rights: while the US Model BIT of 19843 had no mention of human rights, the situation was developed in 2004,4 then in 2012.5 Today, more BITs6 as well as FTAs7 include provisions on human rights, mostly environmental and labor rights.
  • “Non-lowering of standards” provisions: the aim is to avoid lowering environmental, labor and other human rights standards for the sake of attracting foreign investment.8 (See also Environmental Issues in ISDS)
  • Rules on corporate social responsibility (CSR): it is one of the possibilities to ensure investors’ regard for human rights.9 (See also Social Rights)
  • Treaties mentioning international legal instruments on human rights in their preambles.10

2. International treaties


Many international human rights instruments are referred to either by arbitral tribunals or by the parties, such as:

 For an analysis on their application, see section III below and Human Right Counterclaims.

B. Investment contracts


Investment contracts are not unfamiliar with human rights considerations.15 On one hand, parties to contracts can decide to exempt health, safety and environment regulations from the application of stabilisation clauses to allow the host State to regulate in favor of human rights.16 On the other hand, parties can include clauses explicitly providing for human rights obligations towards investors.17 More specifically, some clauses include obligations relating to forced labor,18 as well as to the safety and health of employees.19

C. Soft law


Elaborated provisions on corporate social responsibility are contained today in soft law instruments. These instruments were recently considered by arbitral tribunals in ISDS disputes suggesting that investors are no longer “immune from becoming subjects of international law”.20 Some of these instruments were mentioned in Urbaser v. Argentina21 and Tulip Real Estate v. Turkey:22


A new set of arbitration rules were developed to provide for a procedure suitable for cases with complex chains of distribution, in which different companies from different jurisdictions can be involved. The Hague Rules on Business and Human Rights Arbitration can be used as the applicable law to an arbitration under certain conditions.

D. Case law of international courts


Arbitral tribunals in investment arbitration have in the past referred to case law of international courts when faced with a human rights issue, i.e. European Court of Human Rights case law,23 or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.24

III. Mechanisms in arbitration


There are several ways in which human rights are used in investor-State disputes:

  1. as part of investors’ claims;
  2. as counterclaims or defenses used by the host State; and
  3. as interventions from third parties who are not parties to the investment treaty/contract and/or the dispute – amicus curiae.

A. Claims by investors


Investors may base their claims directly on international obligations relating to human rights or refer to human rights jurisprudence to assert claims of violation of the BIT clauses.25


Where the BIT is sufficiently broad, some tribunals have allowed investors to advance claims of violations of human rights based on general international law within the scope of the dispute before the arbitral tribunal.25 On the other hand, arbitral tribunals rejected human rights arguments,26 or interpretations based on human rights instruments,27 notably where the applicable BIT does not allow for such expansion of the scope of the treaty, tribunals refused to consider these claims within their jurisdiction.28


As standards of protection from international investment agreements (IIAs) provide more specific rules than those of protection of right to property, to life, to health and physical security, investors are more likely to refer to standards of protection provided in investment treaties.28 Some tribunals even refused to recognize incompatibilities between human rights and BIT obligations.29 (See also Full Protection and Security, Minimum Standard of Treatment, Expropriation and Fair and Equitable Treatment).


Nonetheless, claimants have relied on the standards of treatment contained in the BIT while incorporating references to human rights in their allegations and tribunals took them into consideration to properly assess and interpret BIT provisions, such as for the nationality of investor,29 expropriation30 and fair and equitable treatment.31 Others have been more reluctant.32

B. Counterclaims and defenses by the host State


The mechanism of counterclaims for host States allows them to advance claims against investors for breaches of these human rights.33 (See further Human Right Counterclaims)


Host States also refer to human rights when trying to defend or justify their actions,34 such as to protect the indigenous peoples’ rights.35 (See also Necessity and Environmental Issues in ISDS)

C. Amicus curiae


Investment tribunals accept third-party view on the dispute to ensure just resolution for human rights issues, i.e. right to water,36 labor law,37 right over land38 and others.39


In October 2003, the NAFTA Free Trade Commission issued guidelines on non-disputing parties (amici curiae).40 Although third party interventions cannot always be justified due to the consensual nature of arbitration,41 many interventions were possible since the issues involved in the dispute are of public interest, can “have the potential, directly or indirectly, to affect persons beyond those immediately involved as parties in the case42 or are relevant to the dispute at hand.43

IV. Current issues


There are still several unresolved concerns presented by the inclusion of human rights issues into investment arbitration. Human rights provisions are still absent in most applicable BITs and MITs and there are still few disparities between investment arbitration and human rights jurisprudence in terms of the application of a human rights concepts or in awarding damages.44

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