ISDS: Why companies sue countries (and how they do it)

ISDS Homepage

Companies suing countries, without a judge? It happens in the world of investment arbitration, also known as ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement). Claims are judged by a panel of commercial arbitrators, having the authority to award enormous fines.

Highly effective, say investment lawyers. But who judges the arbitrators? And how far does their power over (often poor) countries extend?

To answer these questions, we have created a map showing all known ISDS cases until 2015. In addition, we present three case studies and give a comprehensive behind-the-scenes perspective: from the frustrated official in Indonesia to the arbitrator awarding billion dollar fines: who are the people behind this system?

[Longread] Who are the men behind ISDS?

Mostly white, middleaged men are active in ISDS
Who is who in the world of ISDS? Lawyers, arbitrators, scientists, third party funders: which roles do they play? Why do they think ISDS is a good system, and what are their worldviews? A closer look behind the scenes of investment arbitration.
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This article is published in English by The New Internationalist, in German by Der Spiegel Online, in French by Basta Magazine and in Dutch by De Groene Amsterdammer.

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[Data] Western Europe at the centre of ISDS

Mailboxes of foreign companies in a Dutch office building
Will American companies sue the Dutch government if free trade agreement TTIP becomes a reality? It is possible through the most contentious part in TTIP: ISDS. But ISDS is nothing new, it has been around for decades. And guess what? The Netherlands is right at the centre of it all. In 2014, more claims originated from the Netherlands than from the US. Mailbox companies use Dutch treaties on a large scale. Read more →
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[Video] The history of ISDS in 1 minute

A shrimp farm in Sri Lanka was the subject of the first ISDS case ever in 1987

Arbitration between investors and states (ISDS) has been around for a while, but in recent years the number of cases has exploded.
This video shows the emergence of ISDS, projected on a map. Red circles indicate respondent countries, blue circles indicate where the claims come from.Read more →
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How to sue a country

All ISDS cases on one map

ISDS is a means of resolving disputes through arbitration, a kind of privatized court. Investors can seek arbitration if they feel they have been treated unfairly by a host state. But how does ISDS work exactly? In other words: what and whom do you need to sue a country? Read more →

How to use our ISDS database

Are you a journalist, activist, lawyer or just interested in investment arbitration (also known as ISDS)? Use our interactive map and our database to find more about how ISDS has affected your country.
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How an American mining company evaded the Indonesian law using a Dutch treaty

Batu Hijau copper mine on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, owned by American mining company Newmont.
Indonesia broke up with the Netherlands. They cancelled the treaty for the protection of each other’s investors early 2014. But how could an American mining company use that same treaty to sue the Indonesian government a few months later? This is a story of how developing countries resist ISDS.
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How a French company attacks Ugandan tax through the Netherlands

The minister of Finance from Uganda, Ezra Suruma, is holding the annual national budget of 2006. That year was the first in which oil was found in Uganda.
Uganda got its first ISDS claim this year. The French oil company Total disagreed with a tax it was due to pay for acquiring an oil field. Thanks to the Dutch investment treaty with Uganda Total has -having made itself into a Dutch firm- a good chance getting out of the tax ruling.
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How oil giants use ISDS to punish Venezuela

CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell and BP get together in Congress (2010).
In 2006 Venezuela decided to nationalize a part of the national oil business. Most foreign investors in the industry agreed, after negotiating financial compensations. Except for two. Those were Mobil – since merged with Exxon – and Conoco-Phillips. They made a ‘Dutch sandwich’ just in time to use the Dutch investment treaty to file a claim against Venezuela. Their claim: 42 billion dollars in compensation. These cases hold everything that makes ISDS problematic, critics say.
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Interactive map


About us

A lot of things are said about investment arbitration, or ISDS, by both proponents and opponents. But a clear overview of all the claims that are filed, and what kind of awards are awarded, is almost impossible to get. That is why we started this research project. Our goal: mapping the world of ISDS, in both numbers and stories. We chose to highlight a few cases in Indonesia, Uganda and Venezuela to find out what ISDS means for developing countries.

The project was supported by the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant program from the European Journalism Centre. The media partners are OneWorld, De Groene Amsterdammer and Inter Press Service. Read more about our research project.

The research was done by journalists Frank Mulder and Eva Schram. Data research by Adriana Homolova. Additional field research by Edward Ronald Sekyewa in Uganda and Mitchell van de Klundert in Geneva.

The list with arbitration cases is based on a list by UNCTAD (end of 2014), supplemented with cases that were revealed by IAReporter after that time (until August 2015). Details on all the cases were acquired from different sources: UNCTAD, Gus van Harten, The American Lawyer, Italaw, IAReporter and media reports. In addition, we have spent four months talking to arbitrators, lawyers, third party funders, academics and civil servants, including from the countries that feel disadvantaged by ISDS, including Venezuela, South-Africa and Indonesia.

Not connected to our research, but nevertheless important to mention, is a new map and database recently published by the UNCTAD, the UN organisation advising countries about trade and development. See

Our articles have been published De Groene Amsterdammer, Oneworld, Inter Press Service, and Der Spiegel, among others, in different languages. For a complete list of publications, see here.

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OneworldDe Groene AmsterdammerEuropean Journalism Centre