“Reasonable doubts” as to the “manifest lack” of independence? The successful challenge in Blue Bank v. Venezuela

A.      The decision and its context

On 12 November 2013 the Chairman of the ICSID Administrative Council, Dr Jim Yong Kim, decided to disqualify the arbitrator appointed by the claimant, Mr. José Maria Alonso in the ICSID Case No. Arb/12/20 between Blue Bank International & Trust (Barbados) Ltd.  and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (in the following “Blue Bank International v. Venezuela”) upon request by the respondent.[1] Only one month later, on 13 December 2013, he disqualified Professor Francesco Orego Vincuna in the proceedings between Burlington Resources Inc. and the Republic of Ecuador (in the following “Burlington Resources v. Ecuador).

If one takes into account that until that time challenges of arbitrators in ICSID proceedings have generally been unsuccessful[2] the sequence of two successful challenges within one month is without doubt remarkable. It immediately raises the question as to the legal value and future relevance of these decisions. Are we witnessing a profound change of attitude towards challenges within the ICSID system? Or can the success of the challenges be explained by the particular facts of the two cases which by mere chance were decided within a short time period?

The challenge of an arbitrator was originally a mechanism of last resort. It was used to prevent the participation of obviously unsuitable arbitrators, and parties thought twice before initiating such proceedings. That is also the concept underlying the ICSID Convention at its time of drafting. Pursuant to its Article 57 arbitrators can only be disqualified if there is a “manifest lack of the qualities required by paragraph 1 of Art. 14”, which include inter alia the independence and impartiality of the arbitrator.

Over the years the number of challenges has increased considerably. They have developed into a standard procedural tool employed for a number of different purposes. That applies to commercial arbitration as well as to investment arbitration. In particular in investment arbitration one may even get the impression that challenges are slowly moving from being the exception to becoming the rule. With the increasing case law, the small pool of arbitrators and comparable legal questions in particular, questions of issue conflicts are bound to arise much more frequently than in commercial arbitration.[3]

Irrespective of this it may still be noteworthy that in Blue Bank International v. Venezuela, which is the main focus of this blog, there had been objections against all members of the tribunal. The arbitrator appointed by Venezuela, Dr. Torres Bernárdez, was challenged by the claimant. Claimant considered that the repeat appointments of Dr. Bernárdez by one of the lawyers representing Venezuela as well as his previous decisions which allegedly were always in favor of the party which appointed him, made him unsuitable to act as arbitrator. There was, however, no need for a formal decision on the issue, since Mr. Bernárdez subsequently resigned. Furthermore, concerning the chairman, none of the originally proposed five persons was acceptable to both parties. Venezuela also objected to the appointment of Mr. Söderlund who had been finally selected by ICSID.

To properly evaluate the importance of the successful challenge against Mr. Alonso the decision has to be seen against the background of the particular ICSID challenge system, the previous practice as well as the considerable criticism against the investment arbitration System in general. The potential threat posed by such criticism to investment arbitration is well evidenced by the recent discussion concerning the investment protect provisions in the presently negotiated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and Europe. The criticism raised has resulted in a temporary stay of the further negotiation of that chapter. A closer look at the discussion in Germany’s general press reveals that one of the biggest objections to investment arbitration is that the decisions are made by a small group of arbitrators who are closely connected to the law firms involved and have an economic interest in maintaining the system as it stands.[4] Even if that may be grossly exaggerated and interest-driven, it is hardly questionable that the legitimacy of investment arbitration depends to a considerable extent on the perception of those involved that the decisions are taken by independent and impartial arbitrators. As Mr. Bottini, who has been handling a number of the ICSID arbitrations against Argentina for the Treasury Attorney’s General office on the Argentinian side, has stated succinctly in an article, “[t]hat is why effective and transparent challenge mechanisms are fundamental for the integrity of international investment arbitration.”[5]

 B.      The particularities of the ICSID challenge regime

The ICSID challenge mechanism can primarily be found in Articles 57, 58 ICSID Convention. While Art. 58 regulates the procedure the relevant standard for challenges can be derived from Art. 57 ICSID Convention. It provides in its relevant part:

“A party may propose to a Commission or Tribunal the disqualification of any of its members on account of any fact indicating a manifest lack of the qualities required by paragraph (1) of Article 14. […]”

The qualities required by Art. 14(1) ICSID Convention are:

  • High moral character
  • Recognized competence in the fields of law, commerce, industry or finance and
  • Reliability to exercise independent judgment.


In practice only the last requirement, i.e.  to “exercise independent judgment” has so far played a role. It entails a prospective standard as to whether the arbitrator will have the necessary independence and impartiality to render a decision which is not influenced by any extraneous factors.

On the basis of a primarily textual analysis the ICSID challenge mechanism differs in several respects from the mechanism found in the UNCITRAL Model Law (“ML”) or other national arbitration laws.

First, there is a potential broadening of the grounds for challenge. The ML allows challenges if the arbitrator either lacks the required independence and impartiality or the qualification agreed by the parties. Art. 12(2) provides in its pertinent part:

“An arbitrator may be challenged only if circumstances exist that give rise to justifiable doubts as to his impartiality or independence, or if he does not possess qualifications agreed to by the parties. […]”

By contrast Art. 14 ICSID-Convention imposes, irrespective of any agreement by the parties, two additional statutory quality requirements for arbitrators, i.e. being of high moral character and having a recognized competence in the fields of law, commerce, industry or finance.  Their absence may – via the reference in Art. 57 ICSID Convention – become the basis for a challenge. The practical relevance of that difference is, however, limited. In practice challenges are usually based on the third requirement, the reliability to exercise independent judgment.

The second difference concerns the focus of the independence standard. While under the ML the arbitrator has to be independent and impartial, the ICSID Convention requires a person “who may be relied upon to exercise independent judgment”. The latter refers to a prospective act in the future. As has been stated by Professor Crawford in a presentation at a seminar at the PCA in October 2013: “It consists in evaluating the probability of a certain event – the event of the arbitrator acting independently – rather than simply whether the event will occur.”[6] By contrast the ML standard focuses more on present and past elements. Again the practical relevance is limited, if one takes into account that also the decision as to the prospective act in the future is largely based on past and present connecting factors and experiences.

The most important difference to the Model Law standard is the requirement in Art. 57 ICSID Convention that there must be a “manifest lack” of the qualities required. There is a widespread belief that due to the requirement of a “manifest lack” the ICSID Convention imposes a higher threshold for successful challenges than the ML or other national arbitration regimes.[7] The ML, for example, only requires “reasonable doubts” as to the arbitrator’s independence or impartiality and not a “manifest lack”.

In light of this difference the leading commentary on the ICSID Convention for example states that the “requirement that the lack of quality must be ‘manifest’ imposes a relatively heavy burden of proof on the party making the proposal.”[8]

There are, however, different views as to what is exactly meant by the reference of “manifest lack”. Following the decision in the first Vivendi Case, the prevailing view appears to be that the notion of “manifest lack” has an evidentiary meaning. It should exclude “reliance on speculative assumptions or arguments” and the “circumstances actually established (and not merely supposed or inferred) must negate or place in clear doubt the appearance of impartiality.”[9]

In other decisions the reference to “manifest lack” seems to have been considered to be more a question of degree. Thus not every minor lack of independence is sufficient but only those which have reached a certain threshold, i.e. are manifest.

C.      Definition of the relevant standard in Blue Bank International / Burlington Resources

In so far as the abstract definition of the applicable legal standard is concerned both decisions do not provide any new input for the discussion. The relatively short treatment of the issue in the Blue Bank decision in paras 55 – 62 has been taken over largely verbatim in the Burlington Resources decision. It largely limits itself to quote the statutory requirements and their application in previous cases without touching on any of the controversial issues surrounding the standard.

Concerning the second point mentioned above it is noteworthy that in defining the relevant standards to be derived from Art. 14(1) ICSID Convention, a ML terminology is used that “arbitrators must be both impartial and independent” (para. 58). There is no emphasis on the prospective element.

Equally it is confirmed that the reference to an “independent judgment” encompasses both elements, i.e. independence and impartiality. By reference to previous decisions the applicable legal standard is defined as an “objective standard based on a reasonable evaluation of the evidence by a third party” (para. 60).

The only part of some interest in the definition section is the very cautious treatment of the controversial question of the meaning of the word “manifest” and how the standard differs from the “reasonable doubts” standard underlying the UNCITRAL Model Law and the IBA Guidelines on Conflict of Interest. Here the Chairman limits himself to state that “a number of decisions have concluded that it means ‘evident’ or ‘obvious’ and that it relates to the ease with which the alleged lack of the qualities can be perceived” (para. 61). While the quote shows certain sympathy for that view taken in these decisions a clear endorsement would present it more obviously as the Chairman’s own understanding of the standard.

An equally cautious position is adopted concerning the question of how the standard under Art. 57 ICSID Convention differs from that under the IBA Guidelines. The decision remains vague acknowledging somehow that there might be a difference but not clarifying in any way the nature of such a difference. Concerning the IBA Guidelines which have apparently been invoked by the parties the decision merely states that “[w]hile these rules and guidelines may serve as useful references, the Chairman is bound by the standard set forth in the ICSID Convention” (para. 62).

 D.      Application of the standard

Of considerable interest is, however, the application of this abstract legal standard to the particular facts of the cases.

In Blue Bank the challenge was based on facts disclosed by Mr. Alonso in his statement of acceptance and declaration of independence. In his view the disclosed activities of other Baker & McKenzie firms did not affect his impartiality or could reasonably do so. The controversial issue concerned the partner status of Mr. Alonso in Baker & McKenzie, Madrid and the involvement of two other firms belonging to Baker & McKenzie International, in another case brought against Venezuela by Longreef, a Dutch investor, which allegedly involved comparable legal questions. The focal point of the dispute was the different value given to the exact legal relationships in the case. Unlike a number of other law firms which are fully integrated, the various national offices of Baker & McKenzie are legally and financially (largely) independent. They are bound to the other national Baker & McKenzie entities only via their joint membership in Baker & McKenzie International, a Swiss Verein and certain joint practice groups set up within the Baker & McKenzie International Framework.

Venezuela argued in its challenge that “Baker & McKenzie is structured and publicized as a global legal practice”. Therefore the various offices could not be treated a separate legal entities for the purposes of this challenge. That is even more so since they maintain joint committees to which Mr. Alonso is a member and a part of his remuneration depends on the global returns of the firm. Consequently he had an interest in the outcome of the action brought by Longreef which involved issues similar or identical to the ones Mr. Alonso had to decide, leading to doubts as to whether the decision would be free of extraneous influence.

Mr. Alonso, by contrast, considered such doubts not to be justified. In his view, due to the wide legal independence of the various member firms of the Baker & McKenzie International Framework the remaining connections did not even meet the standard for disqualification under the IBA Guidelines, let alone under the ICSID Convention. He emphasized that his remuneration depended primarily on the results achieved by Baker & McKenzie Madrid and that all offices operate with absolute autonomy. The existing joint committees such as the International Arbitration Steering Committee do give no instructions as to the management of individual cases. Personally he had had no previous contact with the parties of this arbitration and had no economic or other interest in the outcome of the arbitration by Longreef against Venezuela.

The Chairman dismissed the arguments by Mr. Alonso. For him the sharing of a corporate name, the existence of an international steering committee and the sharing of some revenues “imply a degree of connection and overall coordination between the different firms comprising Baker & McKenzie International” that it would be justified to treat them as one entity. In light of the similarity of the issues likely to be discussed in the Longreef v. Venezuela case a “third party would find an evident or obvious appearance of lack of impartiality on a reasonable evaluation of the facts of this case” (para. 69).

E.       Evaluation of the decision

In the author’s view, assuming that the Longreef case truly involved comparable questions,   the challenge in Blue Bank was correctly decided, at least as far as the result is concerned.

The decision avoids giving the critics of the existing system of investment arbitration additional ammunition for their attack on the legitimacy of the regime. In light of the very rudimentary legal reasoning it can only be assumed that such political considerations also influenced the decision. Any other decision could perhaps have been justified on the basis of a formal application of existing standards and could have been explained to well-informed lawyers but not to the general public. That is not to advocate that legal decisions should primarily be guided by considerations of the momentary public opinion. Irrespective of that the perception of the general public cannot be ignored completely in the context of investment arbitration. In so far investment arbitration differs from commercial arbitration as is also recognized in other areas. Over the years the role of the general public has changed. It has increasingly and rightly been recognized to be a major stakeholder in investment arbitration to a much greater extent than in commercial arbitration. That is most apparent in the increased role of transparency in investment arbitration endorsed by the recent changes of the relevant arbitration rules. Consequently, the views of the general public cannot be completely disregarded in defining relevant standards for challenges which affect the legitimacy of the system. While the legal standard as such, i.e. “manifest lack of the qualities” remains unchanged the perception of what it required for an “independent judgment” have changed with the above development. Connections which may have been acceptable in the early days of ICSID when Amco v. Indonesia was decided are no longer acceptable now. In so far the standard of what is required may also differ in investment arbitration from commercial arbitration.

On the basis of a formal legal analysis Mr. Alonso was right in emphasizing that his firm, Baker & McKenzie Madrid, S.L.P. and the firms representing Longreef in the other arbitration against Venezuela, i.e. Baker & McKenzie New York and Baker & McKenzie Caracas, are separate legal entities. They are only bound to each other through their membership in Baker & McKenzie, International.

These legal niceties, however, do not influence the perception of the firm in the market. Therefore the legally separate entities are perceived to be part of the one global law firm Baker & McKenzie International. And in principle that is the way the law firm wants to be perceived and markets itself. That becomes obvious for example by having a look at the regularly published Baker & McKenzie International Arbitration Yearbook. In the copyright information for the 2012 – 2013 Yearbook it is stated that the “[l]eading lawyers of the Firm’s International Arbitration Practice Group, a division of the Firm’s Global Dispute Resolution Practice Group, report on recent developments … in the jurisdiction in which they practice”.  The impression created by this publication addressed to the market and intended to shape the market perception is that there is one “Firm” Baker & McKenzie which operates globally and has the required know-how.  The main purpose of setting up the Swiss Verein Baker & McKenzie, International, organizing Committees and Practice Groups across the boundaries of the separate legal entities is to give the market the impression that there is a Global firm with a well-known brand name and not merely a loose cooperation between befriended law firms.

In particular in investment arbitration with its increased need for transparency, it is that market perception which is relevant for the challenge standard. To put it bluntly: it is not the reasonable and well-informed lawyer who must have manifest doubts but those doubts must exist in the eyes of the reasonable layman potentially affected by the decision.

In so far it is unfortunate that the abstract legal standard for successful challenges appears to be higher in ICSID arbitration than incommercial arbitration – at least when it comes to the evidentiary side. The decision cannot be interpreted as a general legal abolishment of that standard, since the Chairman appears to have endorsed the difference between the ICSIC standard and that under the IBA Guidelines. At least it has not questioned that distinction which would have been difficult without a change of the Convention. De facto, the decision will have lowered the standard a little bit, at least through the back door. One can interpret the decision in a way that while the abstract legal standard is still “manifest lack of qualities” the relevant third person, in the eyes of which such a lack must exist is a different one: It is no longer the third person of 1965 but the third person of 2013 with a critical view of investment arbitration.

Will the underlying recalibration of the approach by ICSID pose a threat to the parties’ right to effected legal protection, which always has to be balanced against the right to challenge? It is submitted that this is not the case, as long as the decisions are based on hard and easy determinable factors, such as the partnership in a law firm.

It appears, however, likely that the decision will further reinforce the exodus of leading arbitrators from full service firms setting up their own boutiques.  That excludes at least the law firm related conflicts.

Stefan Kröll

Prof. Dr. Stefan Kröll, LL.M. (London) is an independent arbitrator in Cologne and Honorary Professor at the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg where he teaches international arbitration and litigation and international contract law. He is a director of the Willem C. Vis Arbitration Moot and a former scholar in residence of the Center for Transnational Litigation, Arbitration and Commercial Law.

[1] The decision was reported and commented on in this blog on 31 January 2014 by Ikemefuna Stephen Nwoye

[2] For the challenges until 2012 see the list published by K. Daele, Challenge and Disqualification of Arbitrators in International Arbitration, 2012, Annex I, p. 455 et seq.

[3] See L. Markert, Challenging Arbitrators in Investment Arbitration: The Challenging Search for Relevant Standards and Ethical Guidelines, 3 (2) Contemp. Asia Arb. J. [2010] 238, 240.

[5] G. Bottini, Should Arbitrators live on Mars? Challenge of Arbitrators in Investment Arbitration, 32 Suffolk Transnat’l L. Rev. 341.

[6] J. Crawford, Challenges to Arbitrators in ICSID Arbitrations, at Confronting Global Challenges: From Gunboat Diplomacy to Investor-State Arbitration, PCA Peace Palace Centenary Seminar, 11 October 2013.

[7] See Reed/Paulsson/Blackaby, Guide to ICSID Arbitration (Kluwer, 2011), p. 81; see also S. Luttrell, Bias Challenges in Investor-State Arbitration: Lessons from International Commercial Arbitration, in: Brown/Miles (eds), Evolution in Investment Treaty Law and Arbitration (CUP 2011), p. 458.

[8] Schreuer et al., The ICSID Convention: A commentary, 2nd ed. (OUP, 2009), Art. 57, para 19. ,

[9] Compania de Aguas de Aconquija SA and Vivendi Universal v. Argentina, ICSID Case No. ARB/97/3, Decision on the Challenge to the President of the Committee (3 October 2001), para. 25.

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