IF YOU wanted to convince the public that international trade agreements are a way to let multinational companies get rich at the expense of ordinary people, this is what you would do: give foreign firms a special right to apply to a secretive tribunal of highly paid corporate lawyers for compensation whenever a government passes a law to, say, discourage smoking, protect the environment or prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Yet that is precisely what thousands of trade and investment treaties over the past half century have done, through a process known as “investor-state dispute settlement”, or ISDS.
ISDS first appeared in a bilateral trade agreement between Germany and Pakistan in 1959. The intention was to encourage foreign investment by protecting investors from discrimination or expropriation. But the implementation of this laudable idea has been disastrous. It has become so controversial that it threatens to scupper trade deals the European Union is negotiating with both America and Canada.
Multinationals have exploited woolly definitions of expropriation to claim compensation for changes in government policy that happen to have harmed their business. Following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011, for instance, the German government decided to shut down its nuclear power industry. Soon after, Vattenfall, a Swedish utility that operates two nuclear plants in Germany, demanded compensation of €3.7 billion ($4.7 billion), under the ISDS clause of a treaty on energy investments.
ISDS was used by Philip Morris to complain about requirements for health warnings on cigarette packets. It should be radically reformed or scrapped.
This is a good related article by George Monbiot.
Update: Buzzfeed covers ISDS.