BuzzFeed looks into investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS), which it portrays as a “a parallel legal universe” and “private, global super court that empowers corporations to bend countries to their will.” ISDS protocols are written into a vast network of treaties that govern international trade and investment, including NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Congress must soon decide whether to ratify. These trade pacts have become a flashpoint in the US presidential campaign. Buzzfeed says its four-part investigation has exposed an obscure but immensely consequential feature of the trade treaties, the secret operations of these tribunals, and the ways that business has co-opted them to bring sovereign nations to heel.
Companies and executives accused or even convicted of crimes have escaped punishment by turning to this special forum. It operates unconstrained by precedent or any significant public oversight, often keeping its proceedings and sometimes even its decisions secret. The people who decide its cases are largely elite Western corporate attorneys who have a vested interest in expanding the court’s authority because they profit from it directly, arguing cases one day and then sitting in judgment another. Some of them half-jokingly refer to themselves as “The Club” or “The Mafia.”