As the Singapore Mediation Convention Enters Into Force This Week, It Is Wait-and-Watch on Its Use

By Yixian Sun

It’s a historic ADR beginning.

The 46 countries—including the United States, China, India, Japan, Israel, and Switzerland—that last year signed the United Nations Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation, known best as the Singapore Mediation Convention, have been joined by seven more since August 2019.

And now, the treaty is set to go into effect.

That group of 53 will preside over the treaty’s official effectiveness date, this week, on Sept. 12.  Under the treaty’s Art. 14, when Qatar became the third nation to ratify the treaty on March 12, effectiveness takes place automatically six months afterward.

The backers will commemorate the effectiveness with an “Entry into Force Celebration” which will stream live here on Saturday: www.singaporeconvention.org/events/scm2020.

The original group signed on last September in Singapore, providing the treaty’s name, and setting the stage for ratifications and effectiveness. 

Official acceptance happened fast. The treaty, which ensures that mediation parties can take their agreements across borders and get them enforced, automatically takes effect upon ratification by three countries. 

Fiji and Singapore had signed the treaty into law in their nations on Feb. 25, which Qatar followed six months ago.  Saudi Arabia, Belarus and Ecuador also ratified the treaty this year.

For an updated status of the Convention, see at https://bit.ly/3bc4Ww3.  

The interest demonstrated with the initial signings is an impressive number compared to, for example, the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, well-known in the alternative dispute resolution community as the New York Convention. That 1958 treaty had 24 signatories when it came into force.

Indeed, the world’s view toward ADR has changed fundamentally since 1958.

The Singapore Convention applies to international settlement agreements resulting from mediation and concluded in writing by parties to resolve a commercial dispute. State parties to the Convention undertake to enforce such settlement agreements. The new Convention seeks to establish a streamlined and harmonized framework for cross-border enforcement of commercial settlement agreements, thereby promoting the use of mediation for the resolution of disputes arising from international business and trade.

Find a brief introduction and the full text of Singapore Mediation Convention are at the official website at www.singaporeconvention.org.

Within the past year in the CPR Institute’s Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation newsletter, Piotr Wójtowicz and Franco Gevaerd provided an overview of some key features of the Convention, with a focus on the basic requirements for the treaty’s application to a specific settlement agreement.  See the authors’ analysis at “A New Global ADR Star is Born: The Singapore Convention on Mediation,” 37 Alternatives 141 (October 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3gJf7JI) and also their discussion of the grounds for States’ or parties’ refusal of enforcement, “How the Singapore Convention Will Enforce Mediated Settlement Agreements Across Borders,” 1 Alternatives 9 (January 2020) https://bit.ly/3jAMdNL).

Some treaty features already have proven to be of great importance in the age of Covid-19. For example, in the face of increasing acceptance of, or at least acquiescence to, online ADR, the Singapore Convention does not incorporate the concept of a “mediation seat.” According to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, best known as UNCITRAL, while an arbitral award usually has a place of issuance to help determine its “foreign” nature, it can be difficult to connect a settlement agreement to a specific place or legal seat due to mediation’s inherently flexible nature. Report of Working Group II, UN Doc. A/CN.9/861 (2015) (available at https://bit.ly/2QIgopO).

The treaty also will not just be concerned with the differences between mediation and arbitration, but also about how business disputes are resolved in the 21st century. Negotiations are conducted in video conferences; agreements are developed and reached via emails, and multiple jurisdictions can be involved in one cross-border mediation.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating these activities, since parties likely can’t travel to mediate, and at least some mediation sessions have to take place remotely even for those who prefer in-person meetings.

Wherever or however the mediation is conducted, the resulting agreement will qualify as “international” under Article 1 of the Convention (i) as long as  at least two parties to the settlement agreements have their places of business in different States; or (ii) when the parties have places of business in the same State, that State “is different from either [S]tate where the obligations of the mediated settlement agreement are to be performed, or the [S]tate with which the subject matter of the mediated settlement is most closely connected.” Timothy Schnabel, “The Singapore Convention on Mediation: A Framework for the Cross-Border Recognition and Enforcement of Mediated Settlements,” 19 Pepperdine Disp. Resol. L.J. 1, 21 (2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2GIGtmQ). The settlement agreement itself, however, is essentially “a stateless instrument.” Id. at 22.

Indeed, many have found mediation the most appropriate and least cumbersome commercial dispute resolution forum during the pandemic. It serves as an efficient and manageable process where parties are encouraged to sit together and come up with creative solutions to preserve both sides’ economic interests and long-term partnership. See, for example, Ivana Nincic, “The Impact and Lessons of the Covid-19 Crisis as Regards the Efficiency of Justice and the Functioning of the Judiciary–a View from the Mediator’s Lens,” International Mediation Institute (available at https://bit.ly/2YQmNDw).

One may even question if international mediation will become the “new normal” for many disputes. Nadja Alexander, “International Mediation and COVID-19–The New Normal?” Kluwer Mediation Blog (May 21, 2020) (available at  https://bit.ly/352B30f). See generally the CPR Institute’s web page ADR in the Time of Covid-19 at www.cpradr.org/resource-center/adr-in-the-time-of-covid-19.

Yet it is one thing to celebrate mediation’s increasing prevalence, but another to predict how successful the Singapore Mediation Convention is going to be. To be more specific, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent the potential users of the new treaty, namely multinational corporations, will be willing to invoke this brand-new framework and make necessary adjustments to their business and legal arrangement accordingly.

Here is an example raised in a panel discussion by Mark Califano, Chief Legal Officer at Nardello & Co., a New York-based international consulting firm that conducts investigations for corporations,  at this year’s American Society of International Law’s Annual Meeting. Under Convention Article 4(1)(b), mediators are expected to sign off on the settlement agreement or use other methods to indicate their involvement. Under Article 5(1)(e), serious misconduct by the mediator is a ground for refusing to grant relief.

While this design may be a reasonable requirement for the purpose of transboundary enforcement, it is, to certain extent, inconsistent with the common practice in places like the United States, where the process of mediation is highly confidential and the behavior of mediators is rarely subject to litigation.

Therefore, parties may want to draft a contract clause beforehand to make sure that whatever settlement agreement that comes out of the mediation process fulfills the requirements imposed by Singapore Convention. The Singapore Convention on Mediation and the Future of Appropriate Dispute Resolution, ASIL 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting (June 25, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/34PHKT3).

In addition, the Singapore Convention’s limited application scope may prevent it from breaking the hegemony of the powerful, “all-encompassing” New York Convention.

Settlement agreements attained via mediation and negotiation and confirmed by the arbitral tribunal are enforceable under the New York Convention. On the contrary, Article 1(3) of the Singapore Convention excludes settlement agreements that have been approved and are enforceable as judgments or as arbitral awards from its scope of application.

As a result, cross-border businesses used to hybrid dispute resolution procedures might prefer to keep mediation as part of the arbitration proceeding, where “the success or failure of mediation will not affect the enforceability of the final award rendered by the arbitral tribunal.” Ashutosh Ray, Is Singapore Convention to Mediation what New York Convention is to Arbitration? Kluwer Mediation Blog (Aug. 31, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/32FEjf7).

Aside from international treaties, the Singapore Convention may need to compete with the pre-existing domestic or regional legal regimes in different jurisdictions. Under Article 12(4), the Convention should not prevail over conflicting rules of a regional economic integration organization if relief is sought in a member State of that organization.

Thus, if the European Union adopted the Convention, practitioners would need to explore how to reconcile the Convention with the EU Directive on Mediation, which does not authorize direct enforcement of settlement agreement. Iris Ng, The Singapore Mediation Convention: What Does it Mean for Arbitration and the Future of Dispute Resolution? Kluwer Mediation Blog (Aug. 31, 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/34Sdw1U).

In Singapore, parties to international mediated settlement agreements are allowed to pick and choose between mechanisms of the Singapore Mediation Act 2017 and the Singapore Convention according to their needs and features of individual cases. Nadja Alexander & Shou Yu Chong, Singapore Convention Series: Bill to Ratify before Singapore Parliament, Kluwer Mediation Blog (Feb. 4, 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/3bbGlYf).

Despite all of this, we should agree with Piotr Wójtowicz and Franco Gevaerd who noted with their Alternatives articles linked above that the Singapore Mediation Convention is another milestone in international dispute resolution. The fact that the Convention was drafted and finalized in fewer than five years is itself an encouraging indication that “joint international effort is still viable,” the authors noted in their second article in January.

International businesses and lawyers will not refuse to diversify and expand their toolkit with a simplified enforcement framework. What the ADR world needs now is more practical experience and some legal precedents for the Convention to mature.

The author, a student at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., was a 2020 Summer Intern at the CPR Institute, which publishes CPR Speaks.

Holding There Is No Treaty-FAA Conflict, Supreme Court Permits Equitable Estoppel for International Arbitration Parties

By Russ Bleemer

Philip J. Loree and Richard D. Faulkner discuss the GE Energy v. Outokumpu Supreme Court decision with Alternatives editor, Russ Bleemer

Seeing no conflict between key international arbitration enforcement law implemented by the Federal Arbitration Act and state laws, the U.S. Supreme Court today permitted a company that was not a party to an arbitration contract to make its case in using the doctrine of equitable estoppel to enforce an arbitration agreement.

GE Energy Power Conversion France SAS Corp. v. Outokumpu Stainless USALLC, et al., No. 18-1048 (available at https://bit.ly/2XogerH), reverses and remands an Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said that GE Energy, which provided motors to Outkumpu via a general contractor, could not use the contract between Outokumpu and the general contractor to take the case to arbitration.

A unanimous opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas held that the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (available at https://bit.ly/2ZVazuK), which is codified in United States in the FAA’s second chapter, does not conflict with domestic equitable estoppel doctrines that permit the enforcement of arbitration agreements by nonsignatories.

On remand, GE Energy will be able to use the equitable estoppel doctrine to invoke the arbitration contract between Outokumpu and the general contractor, and argue that the contract contemplates that nonparty suppliers to the general contractor may use arbitration to settle disputes.

Much of the opinion centered on the role of nonparties in invoking arbitration agreements under the international and national laws, deploying, in Thomas’s words, a “textual” analysis of the Convention and the FAA.

The predecessors and affiliates of Outokumpu, a Calvert, Ala., steel manufacturer, signed a contract for the construction of three mills. The contract contained an arbitration clause. The construction company subcontracted for nine motors to run the plants from petitioner GE Energy. When Outokumpu filed suit against GE Energy after it refused repairs on the motors, all of which failed, GE Energy asked a court to compel arbitration under the Outokumpu-general contractor agreement, also objecting to Outokumpu’s attempted federal-court joinder of foreign insurers.

GE Energy was not a party to the Outokumpu construction contract. Still, an Alabama federal district court granted GE Energy’s motion, and Outokumpu appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which reversed and sent the case back to the trial court.

The Supreme Court today reversed again, remanding the case back for further proceedings, likely eventually to the district court, which had granted GE Energy’s motion to compel arbitration with Outokumpu and an insurer. But the lower court had granted the arbitration request because it said that, in its role as a subcontractor, GE Energy qualified as a party under the contract.

The Supreme Court today used the opinion to uphold the principle of equitable estoppel, which didn’t figure in the trial court’s decision.

The Eleventh Circuit had reversed the trial court, rejecting arbitration, because it said that the Convention required that the party actually sign an arbitration agreement, excluding nonparties’ ability to invoke the contract using a state law doctrine like equitable estoppel.

Thomas’s reasoning started with the FAA, which he wrote “permits courts to apply state-law doctrines related to the enforcement of arbitration agreements.” That would allow the application of states’ equitable estoppel doctrines. 

The opinion states, “Generally, in the arbitration context, ‘equitable estoppel allows a nonsignatory to a written agreement containing an arbitration clause to compel arbitration where a signatory to the written agreement must rely on the terms of that agreement in asserting its claims against the nonsignatory.’” 21 R. Lord, Williston on Contracts §57:19, p. 200 (2017).

The Convention, noted Thomas, focuses almost entirely on enforcement, and the short Article II on agreements “in writing,” which discusses the need for a signature, wasn’t in conflict with the FAA-backed equitable estoppel doctrines.

The opinion notes that the New York Convention is silent on the status of nonsignatories. “This silence is dispositive here,” wrote Justice Thomas, “because nothing in the text of the Convention could be read to otherwise prohibit the application of domestic equitable estoppel doctrines.”

The opinion analyzes the treaty’s “negotiating and drafting history,” and says that the Court found “Nothing in the drafting history [that] suggests that the Convention sought to prevent contracting states from applying domestic law that permits nonsignatories to enforce arbitration agreements in additional circumstances.”

The opinion also dodges the need to interpret the significance of the executive branch’s view of the treaty. The United States, which argued in the case in January, backing GE Energy, claimed that the Court should give deference and “great weight” to its amicus interpretation of the treaty, which it had  submitted in another unrelated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals case. 

Outokumpu countered “that the Executive’s noncontemporaneous interpretation sheds no light on the meaning of the treaty, asserting that the Executive expressed the “opposite . . . view at the time of the Convention’s adoption.”

But Justice Thomas concluded,

We have never provided a full explanation of the basis for our practice of giving weight to the Executive’s interpretation of a treaty. Nor have we delineated the limitations of this practice, if any. But we need not resolve these issues today. Our textual analysis aligns with the Executive’s interpretation so there is no need to determine whether the Executive’s understanding is entitled to “weight” or “deference.”

The Court’s remand order addressed the big issue in the Eleventh Circuit about the New York Convention’s requirement that the agreement in writing needs to be signed by the parties.  Noting that the Convention provisions cited by the Eleventh Circuit address the recognition of arbitration agreements, not who is bound by the agreements, Thomas wrote, “Because the Court of Appeals concluded that the Convention prohibits enforcement by nonsignatories, the court did not determine whether GE Energy could enforce the arbitration clauses under principles of equitable estoppel or which body of law governs that determination. Those questions can be addressed on remand.”

The opinion concluded by limiting the holding to the issue of the Convention and domestic-law equitable estoppel doctrines, finding no conflict between the two.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred separately, agreeing that the Convention “does not categorically prohibit the application of domestic doctrines. She noted, “however, that the application of such domestic doctrines is subject to an important limitation: Any applicable domestic doctrines must be rooted in the principle of consent to arbitrate.”

Sotomayor said that consent is foundational to arbitration practice.  “This limitation is part and parcel of the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) itself,” she wrote.

For a discussion of the Jan. 21 oral arguments in the case, see David Chung and Russ Bleemer’s post on CPR Speaks, “Tuesday’s SCOTUS Argument: Can Non-Signatories Compel Arbitration in the United States Under the New York Convention?” (January 22) (available at https://bit.ly/2ZVqPfg). For an examination of the GE Energy parties’ and amicus’s briefs, see “The Friends Speak: Here’s What Scotus Will Decide In the GE Energy International Arbitration Case,” 38 Alternatives 2 (January 2020) (available at https://bit.ly/2TXmcO2).

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The author edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.  CPR Institute Summer 2020 intern Heather Cameron, a second year law student at Fordham University School of Law in New York City, contributed research.