Coming back to bite...

11 April 2012

This is Africa - March 5, 2012

African governments once rushed into signing bilateral investment treaties to encourage FDI. Lawyers are now calling for new models

With much of Africa’s investment coming from abroad, how governments manage complaints from foreign companies is a vital determinant of the business environment. For decades, foreign investors depended on diplomatic protection from home governments in their overseas adventures, which occasionally gave rise to “gunboat diplomacy”. The US, for example, sent troops into Latin America 34 times to settle commercial disputes.

Since the 1960s, and spiking in the 1990s, a more formal investment approach was attempted in the form of bilateral investment treaties (BITs). These state-to-state agreements establish how governments handle investors from each other’s country, covering fair and equitable treatment, security, and compensation for expropriation, in assets but also, in some cases, in shares, stocks, bonds and other modalities. While BITs infringe sovereignty, in that disputes are settled in international tribunals and not domestic courts, many developing countries saw them as a way of signalling their attractiveness for foreign investment.

The number of treaties has grown exponentially, to around 2,500 today. The number of claims is growing too. Philip Morris, Total, Mobil, Shell, Siemens and Cargill have all taken states to arbitration, with Sri Lanka suffering the first award against a developing country in 1990. Twenty-six percent of new claims in 2010 had an African or Middle Eastern state party involved. In Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia, Liberia, Algeria and Senegal have all faced actions. There are likely to be more disputes in areas such as mining, water and agriculture, according to Mahnaz Malik, an investment arbitration lawyer at the Chambers of Arthur Marriott QC at 12 Gray’s Inn Square. She warns that events such as the Arab Spring can generate a flood of claims.

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