Vodafone Initiates BIT Dispute Against India

As per a press release by Vodafone, on 17 April 2012, Vodafone’s Dutch subsidiary, Vodafone International Holdings BV, served a notice of dispute against the Indian government initiating the dispute settlement process under the India-Netherlands bilateral investment treaty (WSJ; FT; The Hindu suggesting that the Indian government had not received the notice as of 17 April).

Vodafone’s Complaint:

The notice of dispute is not publicly available. As per the Vodafone press release, however:

The dispute arises from the retrospective tax legislation proposed by the Indian government which, if enacted, would have serious consequences for a wide range of Indian and international businesses, as well as direct and negative consequences for Vodafone. The proposed legislation would also countermand the verdict of the Indian Supreme Court in January 2012, which ruled that Vodafone had no liability to account for withholding tax on its acquisition of indirect interests in Hutchison Essar Limited in 2007.

Vodafone believes that the retrospective tax proposals amount to a denial of justice and a breach of the Indian government’s obligations under the BIT to accord fair and equitable treatment to investors.

The Dispute Settlement Process under the India-Netherlands BIT:

Whatever the political and domestic ramifications of the dispute in India, the dispute settlement process under international investment law has now been triggered. Specifically, Article 9 of the India-Netherlands BIT provides that by notifying the host-state of its “intentions”, the investor can trigger the dispute settlement mechanism under the BIT. Once such a notice is served (as has been by Vodafone), the treaty provides for a 3 month period of negotiations for the amicable settlement of the dispute. If negotiations fail to resolve the dispute within 3 months, conciliation may be resorted to if both parties so agree. Otherwise, or in case the conciliation proceedings are terminated at any stage, arbitration proceedings are initiated under Article 9(3) of the BIT, being in all likelihood, an UNCITRAL arbitration before an ad hoc arbitral tribunal.

On the alternatives to arbitration generally:

For what its worth, Vodafone’s official press release is quite aggressively worded. As I’ve noted above, the treaty text makes an explicit reference to the first 3 months as a period for negotiations for the amicable settlement of the dispute (Article 9(1)). In fact, as per Article 9(1), the “intention” behind the first notice of dispute should be to negotiate an amicable settlement.  According to Vodafone, however, this notice “is the first step required prior to the commencement of international arbitration under the Bilateral Investment Treaty”. The fact that Vodafone sees this notice not as a sign of engaging in negotiations, but only as a precursor to the arbitration suggests an eagerness on part of Vodafone to resort to arbitration, and a disinterest in settling amicably.

On how this relates to the larger issue of the space for less-adversarial means of dispute settlement under BITs, I refer you to this recent UNCTAD study on the alternatives to arbitration as a means for the settlement of investor-state dispute settlement provision. (In particular, see Prof. Michael Reisman’s remarks on p.22, and the commentary by Lisa Bingham on p.33).

To pique your curiosity, here’s a quote from Prof. Reisman’s piece:

Ironically, what international lawyers proudly point to as a significant systemic progression, the ADR community seems to view as a problem. ADR proponents appear to believe that there is too much third-party dispute resolution [investment arbitration] in the field of international investment. In point of fact, there is actually very little, and much of it is already being disposed of through informal settlement. The above-stated number 318, which seems enormous in comparison to other international judicial or arbitral instances (for example the dockets of the Permanent Court of International Justice, the International Court of Justice, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration) must be put into context. The gross amount of foreign direct investment is very large, indeed greater than the volume of world trade. There are approximately 80,000 multinational enterprises, which are by definition foreign direct investors. These entities have some 100,000 affiliates. If these 180,000 potential claimants are factored by the number of BITs, bearing in mind that many of these entities are multiple foreign direct investors and that not every foreign direct investor is a multinational enterprise, then the number of actual disputes going to arbitration seems to be a miniscule fraction of the universe of foreign direct investment.

Presidential Reference to Cover BIT Disputes

Meanwhile, in the presedential reference filed before the Supreme Court of India it appears that the government has sought the “the Supreme Court’s direction on how to deal with foreign investors who have invoked bilateral treaties to protect their investment in 2G licences.”