Democratising international investment law

There are growing calls to reform international investment law, but how can we ensure that the people affected by these decisions are part of the debate?

2014 - 2017
Lorenzo Cotula

Principal researcher and head of law, economies and justice programme

Law, economies and justice
A collaborative programme of work on renegotiating the law to promote fairer, more sustainable economies
A large group of people sitting in a circle outdoors

Community members in Liberia discuss the impact of huge government land concessions for oil palm and rubber plantations (Photo: Friends of the Earth International, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

International law governing foreign investment is at a crossroads. The proliferation of investment treaties and arbitrations has made international investment law one of the most dynamic branches of international law, and an important part of the legal architecture underpinning economic globalisation.

But international investment law is also a contested field: some experts and campaigners have questioned substantive standards and dispute settlement mechanisms, and some commentators have talked of a 'legitimacy crisis' or 'backlash' against the investment regime.

This is then a particularly important point in time for shaping the future of international investment law. But while debates about investment treaties are often framed in technical and legal terms, and are dominated by legal professionals, the choices on whether to conclude investment treaties, and in what form, are eminently political.

These political dimensions raise questions about who decides, and how public decisions are made.

What did IIED do? 

We generated evidence on approaches to promote public participation in the making of international investment law; published informational materials on investment treaties and dispute settlement; and facilitated lesson sharing though civil society webinars and blogs. 

We also worked with the Trade Justice Movement and Traidcraft to promote informed public debate about policy choices concerning investment treaty making. 

Together with Warwick Law School and its GLOBE Centre, we co-organised an international workshop for researchers and practitioners to share insights and discuss possible ways forward. 

Additional resources

Public participation and investment treaties: towards a new settlement?, Lorenzo Cotula (2021), Public Participation and Foreign Investment Law journal

Democratising international investment law: the case and channels for citizen engagement, Lorenzo Cotula (2016), Chapter in Rethinking Bilateral Investment Treaties: Critical Issues and Policy Choices, SOMO

Foreign investment, law and sustainable development: a handbook on agriculture and extractive industries, Lorenzo Cotula (2013, second edition 2016), IIED report, Natural Resource Issues series

Event: Workshop on rethinking international investment law: civic advocacy, representation and participation in the international iInvestment (May 2016)

Blog: Why parliament should scrutinise the UK-Ethiopia BIT, Lorenzo Cotula,  January 2015

Do investment treaties unduly constrain regulatory space?, Lorenzo Cotula (2014), Article in Questions of International Law, QIL 9, 19-31

Introductory learning materials on investment treaties and dispute settlement: 

Do investment treaties unduly constrain regulatory space?, Lorenzo Cotula (2014), Questions of International Law journal

Blog: Europe’s controversial TTIP: The good, the bad and the unnecessary, Lorenzo Cotula, July 2014