Introduced by Angelica Bonfanti

Trade liberalization and foreign investments in developing countries are important drivers for economic development. However, the willingness of recipient States to attract direct foreign investments may find itself at odds with the protection of fundamental human rights and the environment. A number of developing and underdeveloped countries rich in natural resources are even affected by the so called “resource curse”, i.e. instead of being drivers of development, their natural resources are at the heart of civil war and political and social disorder. The exhaustibility or the scarcity of natural resources, either those necessary for the sustenance of local peoples or those subject to “commodification” for trade and investment activities, exacerbates the phenomenon. Several actors contribute or are affected by it, including: States, foreign investors, multinational corporations, individuals, indigenous communities and local peoples, intergovernmental organizations, financial institutions, NGOs.

This Zoom-in focuses on the exploitation of natural resources, with the aim of drawing a line between “sustainable investment” and “natural resource grabbing”. It being acknowledged that “territorial sovereignty confers upon the State an exclusive competence to organize as it wishes the economic structures of its territory and to introduce therein any reforms which may seem to be desirable to it” (Texaco Overseas Petroleum Co. v. Libya, 17 ILM (1978), para. 59), this Zoom-in aims at examining whether international law requires that investments in natural resources are carried out in compliance with a sustainable approach, and if this is the case, which rules and principles are suitable to guarantee it. Besides this normative dimension, it also investigates how the legal framework on sustainable development can be enforced, and to what extent it proves to be effective in practice.

Several issues connected with the notion of “sustainable investment” are also worthy of examination, that is to say: how and to what extent the exploitation of natural resources affects State sovereignty and peoples’ right to self-determination? Can a balance be struck between diverging interests of economic development and human rights and environmental protection, and if so, how? How should the public-private relationship be shaped? How exactly do the different actors and legal sources that are relevant in this field interact with each other? What is the role and the effectiveness of international organizations, financial institutions, international courts and quasi-judicial bodies in guaranteeing the protection of human rights and of the environment from practices amounting to natural resource grabbing? And, as a general assessment, can a comprehensive legal regime on sustainable investment in natural resources be envisaged, at least in its early stages.  And if so, what basic common principles and standards of conduct would it embrace?

QIL puts these questions to Francesca Romanin Jacur and Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi, who offer two different perspectives on them. On the one hand, Francesca Romanin Jacur follows a legal approach, based on the analysis of the international legal rules and case-law in the fields of investment, human rights and environmental protection. On the other hand, Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi derives her reflections from sustainable development law and human rights theory, with a specific perspective on international economic regimes, and illustrates her arguments through a Sierra Leonian case that she has studied in depth.