An Indian company goes treaty shopping…

Amidst reports of yet another investment treaty arbitration against India over the cancellation of 2G licenses by the Indian supreme court (ToIIE), the ICSID has registered an arbitration that may well represent the first time an Indian TNC has gone treaty shopping.

According to its website, on 27 September 2013, the ICSID registered an arbitration proceeding initiated by Spentex Netherlands, B.V., against the Republic of Uzbekistan (ICSID Case No. ARB/13/26). A quick Google search reveals that the Claimant in this case, Spentex Netherlands, B.V., is actually a subsidiary of Spentex Industries Ltd., a textile company registered and incorporated in New Delhi and managed by Indian nationals. The 2012-13 Annual Report of Spentex Industries Ltd. provides some insight on the relationship between the Indian parent and the Dutch and Uzbek subsidiaries. Note 42 of the Financial Statement states that:

The Company [Spentex Industries Ltd.] has an investment of Rs. 56,10,11,339 [approx. USD 89,83,362] and Rs. 93,23,779 [USD 1,49,301] in its subsidiary Spentex Netherlands B. V. (SNBV) and its step down subsidiary Spentex Tashkent Toytepa LLC (STTL) respectively. Further it has Rs. 7,00,12,404 as export receivable from STTL and advances of Rs. 9,50,70,902 in SNBV as on March 31, 2013.

The ICSID website does not yet give any further details about the arbitration, except that its subject matter relates to the “Textile Industry.” Spentex India’s statements provide some insight on the details of the dispute. Spentex India describes its version of the developments in Uzbekistan in a press release (apparently) dated 31 May 2012:

An Indian investor SIl (Spentex) through its project company STTL invested and commenced its business in Uzbekistan in right earnest and made investment vide Investment Agreement dated 26th September 2006 entered between the Government of Uzbekistan and Spentex (investor). However, in the midst of term of the Investment Agreement certain changes in legal provisions, economic and business conditions and policies were adversely changed by the authorities in Uzbekistan. These changes being contrary to the provisions of Investment Agreement jeopardized the legal stability of its project company and its business became completely unviable. Spentex made many representations to Uzbek authorities and its financers for rectifying the situation but the same went unheard and ultimately project company was forced to shut down all its factories in Uzbekistan and bankruptcy was thrust upon it. Harassment by tax authorities and prosecutors was another reason which never allowed STTL to function normally as arbitrary penalties were imposed and pressure from the prosecutor was a common feature

The arbitration proceeding also finds a mention in Spentex India’s 2012-13 Annual Report:

During the period of investment Government of Uzbekistan changed certain laws and policies by breaching the investment agreement and rendered operation of STTL unviable. Since treaties entered between the Governments of India and Uzbekistan and the Investment agreement entered between Govt. of Uzbekistan and STTL were breached, company has issued notice claiming in excess of USD 100 Mn. towards protection of investment and payment of dues & compensation for the losses suffered by the company.

Interestingly, although the above quote from the Annual Report refers to the the bilateral investment treaty (BIT) between India and Uzbekistan being breached, the claimant in the arbitration proceeding is the Dutch subsidiary of Spentex India, suggesting that the claimant has sought protection under the Netherlands-Uzbekistan BIT. This is not unusual, as transnational corporations investing in foreign countries often structure their investments through a subsidiary in The Netherlands in order to avail the benefits of the vast network of Dutch BITs. The IISD, in a critical piece, notes that Dutch BITs “invite[] ‘treaty shopping,’ – i.e. routing investments through third countries to acquire the protection of investment treaties that investors would not, otherwise, have in their home state jurisdiction.” Even though the merits of the practice continue to be debated, there is no general international legal rule prohibiting investors from structuring their investments in a manner that allows them to avail of the greater protection available under certain treaties.

This development is interesting because it, once again, shows the blurring of the traditional capital-importing/capital-exporting dichotomy in discussions on investment treaties and investment arbitration. While investment treaties and investment arbitration may initially have emerged in a world where capital exporting countries primarily sought to protect their investors operating in capital importing countries, the scenario today does not allow for such a clear distinction to be easily drawn as traditional capital exporting countries gradually find themselves fending off claims by foreign investors. This, for example, is reflected in the evolution of the United States BIT program, which was focused mainly at investment protection abroad in its early days. In recent times, however, as the flow of investments into the United States has increased, its BITs have evolved to take into account not just the need for protecting investments abroad, but also the impact of such treaties and claims by foreign investors on the domestic regulatory space available to the government.

Faced with several claims by foreign investors under different BITs, there has been widespread criticism of the Indian BIT program as being too “pro-investor.” The Indian government has gone back to the drawing board and is currently reviewing its BITs. Cornered by the many treaty claims it faces, the government may well see BITs and investment arbitration as liabilities that expose it to unnecessary international litigation. However, as the Spentex case well illustrates, Indian investors are also increasingly investing abroad. Given the reciprocal basis of BITs generally, if India dilutes the standards of substantive and procedural protection in its BITs in immediate response to the claims filed against it, this would also weaken the protection available to Indian investors abroad. Therefore, as India undertakes to review and rationalize its BIT program, it must strike a careful balance between its domestic regulatory interests, on the one hand, and the interests of the Indian investor abroad, on the other. In its attempt to shield itself from claims by foreign investors, India should not deprive its own investors the benefits and protection promised by BITs.

Hat-tip to Aditya Singh for the alert about the Spentex arbitration.