Knowing Your NAFTA Dispute Chapters: 11 vs. 19 vs. 20

There is likely to be confusion over many issues in the upcoming NAFTA renegotiation, but one particular area where I already see some misunderstandings is the NAFTA dispute process. To illustrate this, here’s a recent statement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

as our ambassador said just last week to the Americans, a fair dispute resolution system is essential for any trade deal that Canada signs on to and we expect that to continue to be the case in any renegotiated NAFTA.

In context, it is clear he was talking about a particular type of NAFTA dispute, rather than the more general proposition that there must be a dispute system in place.  But there are actually several dispute provisions in NAFTA, and I’ve seen a number of people get them mixed up.  As a result, I thought it was worth explaining the key distinctions in a blog post, which I can then link to whenever the issue comes up in the future.

There are three main types of NAFTA disputes, set out in separate chapters: Chapter 11 (litigation over the treatment of foreign investment), Chapter 19 (appeals of anti-dumping/countervailing duty decisions), and Chapter 20 (government complaints about compliance with NAFTA obligations).

Chapter 11 is part of the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) debate. Under Chapter 11, a foreign investor of one NAFTA party can sue the government of another party (e.g., a Canadian company who has invested in the U.S. can sue the U.S. government) on the basis that it has been treated worse than its American competitors, or that it has been treated badly in general (e.g., it did not receive treatment that was “fair and equitable”). I have questioned the value of such procedures, but they are strongly supported by business groups. As far as I know, the Canadian and Mexican governments favor their inclusion in NAFTA, and the Trump administration’s NAFTA negotiating objectives seem to envision including them (although I can imagine some members of the Trump administration who worry about sovereignty will be pushing to take them out).

Next up is Chapter 19, which sets out a special appeals process related to the imposition of anti-dumping and countervailing duties. This is the dispute procedure Trudeau had in mind. Anti-dumping and countervailing duties are imposed on the basis of decisions by domestic agencies (in the U.S., it is the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission), and the decisions of these agencies can be appealed to domestic courts (in the U.S., appeals go to the Court of International Trade, then the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and then the Supreme Court). NAFTA Chapter 19, however, sets up a special appeals process which allows Canadian and Mexican respondents in U.S. proceedings to appeal the agency decision to an ad hoc NAFTA panel (i.e., private lawyers who act as judges in a particular case) instead of to domestic courts.  (The process is also available in relation to Mexican and Canadian anti-dumping and countervailing duty cases, taking appeals out of their domestic courts).  When reviewing U.S. agency decisions, a NAFTA Chapter 19 panel acts like the Court of International Trade, in the sense of reviewing the agency’s interpretation and application of U.S. law, and remanding to the agency if necessary. Unlike the Court of International Trade, NAFTA Chapter 19 panel rulings cannot be appealed.

It’s not clear to me that this process is constitutional (a law review article discussing the predecessor provision in the Canada-U.S. FTA is here), and I’m not sure at this point how different the results are as between U.S. courts and the NAFTA process (this is something I plan to look into further). The Canadians insist they want to keep Chapter 19, while the Trump administration says it wants to take it out, which means this could be a major hurdle in the negotiations.

Finally, there is NAFTA Chapter 20. This is the core state-to-state NAFTA dispute process, where one government can allege that another is not complying with its obligations. Chapter 20 has not worked that well in practice, in part due to problems with getting panelists in place. I am working on an article that proposes some fixes.

My hope is that these basic explanations can cut through some of the confusion. All of these provisions set out NAFTA dispute procedures, but the policy implications and the politics of each are very different.

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