TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era

Published Jun 17, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Kluwer law has recently published Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era, a collection of contributions I co-edited with Sergio Rocha, in which we and a slate of authors from a range of countries explore the impact of the BEPS initiative on "tax sovereignty"--which I take to mean the autonomy that nations seek to exercise over tax policy. Here is the description:

Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era focuses on how national tax sovereignty has been impacted by recent developments in international taxation, notably following the OECD/G-20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Project. The power of a country to freely design its tax system is generally understood to be an integral feature of sovereignty. However, as an inevitable result of globalization and income mobility, one country’s exercise of tax sovereignty often overlaps, interferes with or even impedes that of another. In this collection of chapters, internationally respected practitioners and academics reveal how the OECD’s BEPS initiative, although a major step in the right direction, is insufficient in resolving the tax sovereignty paradox. Each contribution deals with different facets of a single topic: How tax sovereignty is shaped in a post-BEPS world.
And here is the table of contents:
Part I The Essential Paradox of Tax Sovereignty
  • CH 1: BEPS and the Power to Tax, Allison Christians          
  • CH 2: Tax Sovereignty and Digital Economy in Post-BEPS Times, Ramon Tomazela Santos & Sergio André Rocha
  • CH 3: Justification and Implementation of the International Allocation of Taxing Rights: Can We Take One Thing at a Time?, Luís Eduardo Schoueri & Ricardo André Galendi Júnior
  • CH 4: An Essay on BEPS, Sovereignty, and Taxation, Yariv Brauner

Part II    Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence
  • CH 5: Evaluating BEPS, Reuven S. Avi-Yonah & Haiyan Xu
  • CH 6: Jurisdictional Excesses in BEPS’ Times: National Appropriation of an Enhanced Global Tax Basis, Guillermo O. Teijeiro
  • CH 7: Taxing the Consumption of Digital Goods, Aleksandra Bal

Part III  Acceptance and Implementation of Consensus by Differently-Situated States
  • CH 8: The Birth of a New International Tax Framework and the Role of Developing Countries, Natalia Quiñones
  • CH 9: The Other Side of BEPS: “Imperial Taxation” and “International Tax Imperialism”, Sergio André Rocha
  • CH 10: Country-by-Country Over-Reporting? National Sovereignty, International Tax Transparency, and the Inclusive Framework on BEPS, Romero J.S. Tavares
  • CH 11; How Are We Doing with BEPS Recommendations in the EU?, Tomas Balco & Xeniya Yeroshenko      
  • CH 12: U.S. Tax Sovereignty and the BEPS Project, Tracy A. Kaye 
And finally, here is a brief description:

The book unfolds in three parts. The first, The Essential Paradox of Tax Sovereignty, features four chapters.

  • In chapter 1, Christians introduces the topic by demonstrating how BEPS arose from the paradox of tax sovereignty and analyzing why multilateral cooperation and soft law consensus became the preferred solutions to a loss of autonomy over national tax policy. The chapter concludes that without meaningful multilateralism in the development of global tax norms, the paradox of tax sovereignty will necessarily continue and worsen, preventing resolution of identified problems for the foreseeable future. 
  • Tomazela &; Rocha pick up this thread in chapter 2, where they demonstrate that BEPS addresses the symptoms, but not the problems, of the sovereignty paradox. In their view, the central defining problem of this paradox is an ill-defined jurisdiction concept. The chapter demonstrates why tax policymakers need to change the conventional wisdom on sovereignty in order to incorporate new nexus connections due to the changing nature of trade and commerce. 
  •  In chapter 3, Schoueri & Galendi further the inquiry by providing a detailed analysis of the interaction of contemporary cooperation efforts with the sovereignty of states in light of historical claims in economic allegiance, economic neutrality and now cooperation against abusive behaviour. 
  • Brauner rounds out this first part in chapter 4, which establishes the evolution of the concept of tax sovereignty. The chapter proposes an instrumental role for sovereignty in the process of improving cooperation and coordination of tax policies among productive (non-tax haven) countries, to balance claims and serve as a safeguard against political (in this case international) chaos. Brauner concludes that such a change to the business of international tax law would ensure at least an opportunity for all participants to succeed on their own terms. 

 Part Two of the book, Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence, takes an in depth look at why residence and source continue to be the two essential building blocks of tax sovereignty and the backbone of the international tax system, surviving BEPS but still subject to multiple challenges in theory and practice.

  • In chapter 5, Avi-Yonah & Xu argue that BEPS simply cannot succeed in solving the sovereignty paradox because BEPS follows the flawed theory of the benefits principle in assigning the jurisdiction to tax. Avi-Yonah and Xu therefore make a compelling argument that for the international tax regime to flourish in the face of sovereign and autonomous states, countries must commit to full residence-based taxation of active income with a foreign tax credit granted for source-based taxation. 
  • In chapter 6, Tejeiro continues the analysis of the fundamental jurisdictional building blocks, demonstrating that by resorting to legal fictions within BEPS and beyond it, states are attempting to enlarge the scope of their personal or economic nexus, or to grasp taxable events and bases beyond their proper reach under well-settled international law rules and principles. 
  • Bal furthers the discussion in chapter 7, with an analysis of how digital commerce has upended traditional notions of source and residence. Bal advocates the consumer's usual residence as a good approximation of the place of actual consumption and therefore the best-justified place of taxation. 

Part Three of the book, Acceptance and Implementation by Differently-Situated States, considers tax sovereignty after BEPS from a range of perspectives. Chapters 8 through 10 focus on perspectives from lower income or developing countries, while chapters 11 and 12 review the landscape from the perspective of Europe and the United States, respectively.

  • In chapter 8, Quinones explores how developing countries might take advantage of the new international tax architecture, developed for purposes of coordinating the BEPS action plans, to ensure that their voices are truly shaping the standards. She argues that the knowledge gap between developing and developed is getting narrower instead of wider, with major negative impacts expected for the international tax order. 
  • Rocha continues this discussion in chapter 9, with a proposal: instead of simply accepting the BEPS Project’s recommendations and their reliance on historical decisions about what constitutes a country’s “fair share of tax”, developing countries should join in the formation of a Developing Countries’ International Tax Regime to focus discourse on the rightful limits of states’ taxing powers. 
  • Furthering the theme of autonomous priority-setting, in chapter 10 Tavares focuses in on a key part of the BEPS consensus, exploring whether implementing the CBCR standard, without a deeper transfer pricing reform, should be viewed as a priority in every country. He further questions whether this particular initiative, even if important, is worthy of mobilization of the scarce resources of developing countries. Tavares concludes with an incisive review of the role of the inclusive framework in prioritizing some needs over others. 
  • Balco & Yeroshenko then consider BEPS implementation from the very different perspective of the EU in chapter 11. The chapter demonstrates that even within the EU, BEPS implementation is not straightforward, as the interests of member states sometimes conflict and the basic notion of tax sovereignty remains fundamental even while tax coordination and harmonization across the EU expands. However, the authors note that the progress made in the last several years on key cooperation norms, which was largely inspired by BEPS, has been unprecedented. 
  • Finally, Kaye provides a capstone to the book in chapter 12, where she makes the convincing case that although some in the United States saw the BEPS Project as a threat to US tax sovereignty, this project was in fact necessary in order for the United States to effectively wield its tax sovereignty. Kaye’s chapter thus ends the book with a clear picture of the ongoing paradox of tax sovereignty in the world after BEPS.

Tagged as: BEPS scholarship sovereignty tax competition tax policy

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What does it mean to implement BEPS?

Published May 26, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Today I took part in a panel discussing the topic of "Life After BEPS," at which I laid out the three categories of BEPS commitments in three slides. These categories are "minimum standards" (there are four), "recommendations" (there are several) and "best practices" (there are many). These are defined terms in BEPS world but it is already fascinating that there is some category blurring going on in the discourse surrounding implementation. I'm interested in that blurring because of course we are in the midst of a major cycle of law- and norm-making in international tax, and "what countries actually agreed upon" is really going to matter pretty soon, as the difference between convergence and divergence depends on a meeting of the minds at the level of rulemaking. This will play out through conflict and resolution at the domestic and international level in the form of both hard law (multilateral and bilateral agreements and domestic law changes) and soft law (OECD models, guidelines, and peer monitoring). In case they are of interest, I thought I would post my three slides here.




Tagged as: BEPS conference international law OECD

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Soft Tax Law & Multilateralism: Modifying treaties with anti-BEPS measures

Published Mar 17, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

As observers of global tax policy know, international tax issues are dealt with in bilateral treaties that more or less adhere to a 'model' tax treaty developed and periodically updated by the OECD (provisions in a rival UN Model are occasionally invoked, and the US has its own model with its own distinctions and idiosyncrasies). There are those who have long lamented the problem of having thousands of bilateral agreements that can't be easily or quickly updated when the OECD revises the model (thus curbing the impact of OECD soft law).

As part of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) initiative, the OECD is currently developing a
"Multilateral instrument on tax treaty measures to tackle BEPS" which would be used to 'modify' all existing tax treaties in force among signatory countries. The OECD says this mechanism (which it calls an 'innovative approach') 'would preserve the bilateral nature of tax treaties' even as it modified all existing bilateral treaties 'in a synchronized way'. The OECD says there are "limited precedents" for modifying bilateral treaties with a multilateral instrument.

But are there really any precedents at all? I couldn't think of any off-hand. A quick check with a few international law colleagues yielded few comparators. Tim Meyer suggested the EU harmonizing efforts on Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) as a candidate, albeit noting that this does not contemplate directly overriding existing BITs but requires EU members to change their bilateral arrangements to conform with EU investment policy.

Tim also made the interesting observation that"treaties that reference customary international law standards, such as BITs’ reference to the minimum standard of treatment" could be overridden in a somewhat similar fashion. He explained that "[i]f custom changed, such as through the promulgation of soft law documents or multilateral treaties, it would change the BITs that incorporate the customary standard. That isn’t exactly the same thing [as the new OECD multilateral instrument], but similar."

The OECD's work in developing "global consensus" has in the past led some to describe OECD standards as "soft law" and others to suggest that the OECD may be understood to articulate customary international tax law; moreover the OECD has itself now taken to describing its model as soft law (including in its 2014 report on the multilateral instrument). I have urged caution in defining OECD proclamations as soft law or customary law given the OECD's exclusive membership of mainly rich countries, which excludes all of the BRICs and most of the rest of the world, as I think the nomenclature lends an imprimatur of legitimacy to OECD proclamations that may not be deserved. But it seems clear that the BEPS action items, and the new global forum to "monitor compliance" with them, are intended to overcome the exclusivity problem while endowing OECD norms with ever-greater law-like effect (without offending the unicorn that is "tax sovereignty").

It seems likely to me that a multilateral agreement that modifies existing tax treaties is actually intended to ultimately replace those treaties, making small and incremental modifications until the underlying bilateral treaties become superfluous or extinct. Accordingly I view the OECD's multilateral 'modification' function to be an exercise in creeping harmonization as well as "ossification" (or maybe transformation) of soft law into hard law.

Adding together the other elements of BEPS, including the new global forum to compel national compliance with 'minimum standards' as they develop, I recently suggested that the OECD's tax folks are giving birth to a new global tax order complete with rules, audits, and reform processes. This is perhaps not the order envisioned by those who have in the past called for global tax coordination in a supranational body for the sake of pursuing global tax justice. If the OECD-based regime is not fully supranational yet, it is close, and it looks increasingly inevitable once it sets a multilateral agreement in place.

There are many fascinating threads of soft law and public international law are at work in these developments. I recently came across an article by Jung-Hong Kim on the topic, entitled A New Age of Multilateralism in International Taxation?, abstract:

 With the OECD/G20 BEPS project, the current international tax landscape is facing challenges and changes unprecedented for the past several decades. This paper looks at the development of bilateralism and multilateralism in the current international tax regime, takes stock of the BEPS works and analyzes the proposed Multilateral Instrument. Then, the paper discusses the emerging multilateral tax order in international taxation. 
Historically, bilateralism has been the constant trend of tax treaties, and later multilateral tax treaties have emerged in some regional areas. There being some deficiencies with bilateral treaties such as dilapidation, delay in entry into force and vulnerability to treaty shopping, the experience of multilateral tax treaties can help build a foundation for future development of a multilateral tax treaty to complement the bilateral tax treaty network. 
With a caveat that BEPS output is fluid at this stage, drawing on the various examples of existing non-tax multilateral treaties, the Multilateral Instrument will be a desirable and feasible tool to reflect the necessary changes resulting from BEPS project. For Korea whose tax treaties need a systematic upgrade after a noticeable growth in quantity, the negotiation on the Multilateral Instrument of the BEPS project will be a great opportunity to revisit the existing bilateral tax treaties and to make appropriate amendments with bilateral treaty partners in multilateral format. 
Beyond BEPS, supposing that the work on the Multilateral Instrument results in a multilateral convention, the inevitable question is the emergence of a multilateral tax order. In terms of feasibility of such a multilateral tax order, there are both positive and negative sides. The positive side is that the relative success of Global Forum on Tax Transparency can be a guidance on the post-BEPS multilateral tax order. On the other hand, the phenomenon of diminishing multilateral trade regime and bilateral investment treaty regime seem to be a negative evidence. Another point to consider is the appropriate forum to manage the multilateral tax order. For this, there are two competing organizations, i.e., the OECD CFA and UN tax committee, each of which having some limit to be developed into an intergovernmental forum. 
After all, the essential question will be how those major players such as the U.S., EU, China, India etc. could build a consensus by compromising on the institutional and substantive aspects of the multilateral tax order. For now, for the emerging multilateral tax order to proceed on a sound basis, the work of the BEPS project should bear substantive and meaningful fruits. 
This is a useful contribution to the discussion and I would like to see more analysis on the OECD's developments, especially from the perspective of nonOECD countries that are being drawn in as BEPS Associates. I would be interested to hear from readers with thoughts on the public international law foundations and precedents, particularly any comparator regimes that I should be thinking about.

Tagged as: globalization governance international law OECD rule of law sovereignty tax policy treaties

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Thinking about the OECD's New World Tax Order

Published Mar 14, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Last week I presented a work in progress on the OECD's newest global forum, which is being created to fulfill and further its BEPS initiative, as part of the BYU symposium "The Cutting Edge Of International Tax Reform." I tentatively titled my paper (ok, outline) "Not So Soft Law: The OECD Tax Regime" but I don't think I will stay with that title because soft law is still a fairly obscure notion among tax academics and practitioners, at least, in North America (it seems somewhat better-understood elsewhere). In any event I don't have a working paper yet but here is my working abstract:

Tax jurisdiction gaps and overlaps are inevitable in a world economy powered by constant cross-border flows of capital and income. States have long sought to overcome issues thus created by engaging in consensus building over nonbinding “soft law” norms via the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But with its most recent exercise, the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting initiative, the OECD is hardening these norms into a genuine global tax regime. It is doing so with model legislation, peer monitoring, and institutions that supplant its more inclusive policy rival, the United Nations, bringing in non-OECD countries as "BEPS Associates". This Article argues that the implications of these developments include building a new international tax organization (or world tax order) to avoid the encroachment of the United Nations as a potential tax policy rival, thus ensuring the continuing global tax policy monopoly of a core set of OECD nations.
I'm still thinking through all of the fascinating institutional changes taking place as part of the BEPS process, and don't have any grand conclusions. International tax governance has become infinitely more complicated over the past several years, with multiple institutions popping up as potential rivals for the OECD's monopolistic grip on global tax policy norms and processes.   I welcome the OECD's desire to develop an inclusive forum to enable more effective participation in global tax norm development. However I am wary about whether and how inclusive the proposed institution can be in light of the observation that agenda-setting is such an important aspect of effective participation. BEPS Associates don't quite seem like full partners yet, hence their title unfortunately seems all too apt.

If non-OECD countries set up a new forum, to which they invited OECD countries as Associates, would the major action items be those covered in BEPS? I am not convinced. A serious study of formulary apportionment as an alternative to transfer pricing seems like a topic that a truly inclusive forum would insist upon immediately. That is not to say that formulary apportionment is wonderful or great or a panacea--I am not sure it is. But there are so many calls for it, it seems to me impossible to understand the continued insistence by the OECD to quash the discussion. If it's not a great idea, fine: study it and reveal its weaknesses. If it is a great idea, why suppress it? Perhaps there are good reasons, but in general I favour studying things to not studying them, especially when not studying them looks like an attempt to intentionally thwart progress. Similarly, I would expect such a forum to tackle items of interest especially to "less developed" countries (as far as that term may be adequately defined), such as the longstanding source/residence compromise and the expansion of the permanent establishment regime to deal with services.

If these items were to become topics of attention and study within or because of the new OECD forum, I think I would reflect on this new tax order as a success story in developing the means for effective participation of more countries in the global tax dialogue. If not, I would be less sure that progress has been made. At this stage I have far more questions than answers.

Tagged as: institutions OECD scholarship tax policy

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Documenting the spread of OECD norms: Country by Country Reporting Map

Published Feb 05, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Here is a world map showing status of implementation of the OECD's Country by Country Reporting regime; clicking on the flags gives a brief country status report. I'm not really sure how informative it is in that it is not all that useful to read simply that CBCR is being implemented but the implementation date is "unknown" in various countries, especially when the little flag masks real controversy surrounding the country's intentions.  Also I am not sure what to make of all the blank space--do the map's curators think these other countries are irrelevant to the inquiry? Even so, if the idea is that the map will one day be covered in green flags, and that the world with green flags is remarkably different than today's world with mostly red and yellow ones, watching the map evolve will be a fascinating study in the power of soft law.

Tagged as: CBCR OECD soft law

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NGOs using non-binding OECD Guidelines to launch complaints about tax avoidance #TJHR

Published Jun 30, 2014 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Thanks to a visit from Savior Mwambwa to Montreal last week in connection with the Symposium on Tax Justice and Human Rights, I finally sat down to look closely at the complaint raised by several NGOs against Glencore International AG, a Swiss company, for their transfer pricing strategies related to the Zambian-based Mopani Copper Mines Plc.

What I found was quite startling news to me (but not to a number of NGOs, and not to Martin Hearson, who is quickly becoming an indispensible go-to for interesting developments in international taxation): the OECD has apparently set up a sort of soft-law dispute resolution regime in which anyone can bring complaints against perceived tax dodging by multinationals, by lodging a request to a designated bureaucrat in the multinational's home states. This is a metaphor for taxpayer standing, an issue I have been curious about in the past but haven't made much progress on despite more than a little help from some of my regular readers.

This soft-law dispute resolution regime is quirky, to say the least. That's, of course, to be expected. So far the regime seems to be toothless or offer little more than a bit of theatre, but it is intriguing to watch the NGOs try to make hay with it, and more power to them if they can gain any traction. If they can, I expect to see the floodgates opened up for taxpayer-standing suits levied against MNCs in OECD member nations for their tax dodging efforts in developing countries, all on the strength of a document that isn't law anywhere.

This is the stuff of global legal pluralism.

The regime emerges from a non-binding set of OECD guidelines that require multinational enterprises to (among other undertakings) adhere to the arm’s length transfer pricing standards (also developed by the OECD) wherever they operate, and to structure transactions consistent with economic principles unless there are specific local laws allowing deviation from this general rule. Again, these guidelines are non-binding standards. But there is a real live process built up in this document. It is sprinkled throughout the Guidelines but the main parts are these:

[from p. 18:] Governments adhering to the Guidelines will implement them and encourage their use. They will establish National Contact Points that promote the Guidelines and act as a forum for discussion ... The adhering Governments will also participate in appropriate review and consultation procedures to address issues concerning interpretation of the Guidelines in a changing world.
[from p. 72:] The National Contact Point will ... Respond to enquiries about the Guidelines from: a) other National Contact Points; b) the business community, worker organisations, other non- governmental organisations and the public; and c) governments of non-adhering countries. 
... The National Contact Point will contribute to the resolution of issues that arise relating to implementation of the Guidelines in specific instances in a manner that is impartial, predictable, equitable and compatible with the principles and standards of the Guidelines. The NCP will offer a forum for discussion and assist the business community, worker organisations, other non-governmental organisations, and other interested parties concerned to deal with the issues raised in an efficient and timely manner and in accordance with applicable law. 
In providing this assistance, the NCP will: ... Make an initial assessment of whether the issues raised merit further examination and respond to the parties involved. ... consult with these parties ... facilitate access to consensual and non-adversarial means, such as conciliation or mediation ... make the results of the procedures publicly available.
From this we can discern the following soft law dispute resolution regime:

  • If you think a MNE is engaged in behavior inconsistent with the MNE guidelines, you can make a complaint to the National Contact Point (NCP) in the country(ies) where your target MNE is organized/operates. 
  • The NCPs "will" respond to enquiries from the public.
  • The NCPs "will" assess issues raised, and, if the NCP thinks the issues merit further review, will consult with you and with the MNE about the issue you raised, facilitate mediation, come to a decision and publish their results.
So how is this process working so far? Spoiler alert: about what you'd expect from a non-binding regime run by the OECD.

Over at OECD Watch (H/T Martin Hearson, naturellement), I searched "tax" and got 74 results. Most seem to involve conflict minerals and outright corruption (including bribery and financing armed rebels) but I am interested in how the process is being used to challenge tax avoidance, specifically with transfer pricing (on the theory that regulating transfer pricing is all about drawing that ever-elusive line between tax avoidance and evasion, so we are not always taking about activities that are inherently objectionable--in other words, these would be the hardest cases, so if any traction is gained, it is definitely worth noting). 

The Glencore/Zambia case is documented here. The result: the NCP of Switzerland took a look, consulted the parties, and concluded that, in the words of OECD Watch, "the parties agreed to disagree." OECD Watch reports that:
"the complainants are disappointed that the agreement did not go further than an agreement to disagree. They feel that the result shows that there is little value in engaging in a dialogue with the companies on these issues. According to the complainants, the company has not complied with its commitment as part of the agreement to respond to a detailed set of questions regarding its tax payments."
So, a dead end and as far as I see, no way to appeal or contest anything that has happened or not happened; on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be anything (other than resource constraints of would-be complainants) preventing reopening the case by simply filing a new complaint.

Other dead ends:
  • CBE vs. National Grid Transco, opened in 2003 in connection with acquisition of Copperbelt Energy Co (CEC), stating that "financial and tax incentives given to CEC are alleged to have resulted in an unstable macroeconomic environment by having increased the tax burden on the poor, having introduced discriminatory treatment and massive externalisation of funds." Case closed by UK NCP in 2005 "for 'want of prosecution'." I am not sure what that means.
  • NiZA et al. vs. Chemie Pharmacie Holland (CPH), a conflict minerals complaint opened in 2003 that sought clarification of whether tax payments made by CPH subsidiaries in the DRC were consistent with the Guidelines. Case first accepted but then quickly rejected by the Dutch NCP in 2004, for "lack of an investment nexus." 
  • War on Want and Change to Wins complaint against Alliance Boots, opened in November 2013 and quickly rejected by the UK NCP for offering only "unsubstantiated" allegations. The NGOs alleged that Alliance Boots violated the Guidelines disclosure and tax provisions, by, among other items, failing to act "in accordance with the spirit of UK taxation laws by shifting profits to offshore tax havens using complex financial instruments, shell financial companies in Luxembourg, and payments from one party to another to finance the purchase of company debt in a circular manner. The complainants sought mediation to bring concrete reforms of the company' governance, tax, and disclosure procedures so they are aligned with the Guidelines." I hope they assemble some documentation and try again: this is an interesting case for observers of the emerging links between tax justice and human rights.
I found one NGO win in this database, but the victory appears hollow, at least to the NGO:

  • Global Witness vs Afrimex, regarding tax payments made by Afrimex (a UK co operating in the DRC) to an "armed rebel group with a well-documented record of carrying out grave human rights abuses." The UK NCP agreed with many of GW's charges and concluded "that Afrimex failed to contribute to the sustainable development in the region; to respect human rights; or to influence business partners and suppliers to adhere to the Guidelines." Global Witness later followed up with Afrimex to see how things were going; the company said it had stopped trading in minerals. But GW seems skeptical, and states that "the case illustrates the severe limitations of relying on voluntary guidelines to hold companies to account. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises remain a weak, non-binding mechanism. The NCP does not have the legal powers to enforce decisions arising from its conclusions and there is no in-built mechanism for following up its recommendations. The UK government will have to take further action to ensure that the investigation and conclusions of the NCP are more than just a theoretical exercise."

So far, the process isn't looking too promising for those using the guidelines to resist the status quo of international tax practice. Still,  I found one that was re-opened from a prior failed attempt, 15 Belgian NGOs complaint against Nami Gems for tax evasion in the DRC. This is a re-opening of a complaint that was rejected 10 years ago on what look like fairly flimsy grounds, will be interesting if the NGOs are learning from experience and improving their strategy as they go along.

I know that there are those that believe it is frustrating or even pointless watching activists work through international tax rules looking for justice. But activists are a finger on a pulse. They are looking to the rule of law to produce justice. When they feel that it doesn't, they again look to the rule of law for avenues of redress against unjust situations caused or ignored by the law. It is an optimistic and hopeful strategy, that refuses to give up on law. I hope that law can live up to its promise in this respect. It is the case that we perceive international taxation to occur mostly in the anarchy of the post-Westphalian nation-state-based global order. Yet organisations like the OECD transcend this order all the time, often in ways we don't understand and usually with a very little amount of scrutiny from tax law scholars. The activists are watching more closely. We would do well to pay attention.



Tagged as: activism corporate tax institutions OECD rule of law soft law Tax law tax policy transfer pricing

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OECD's Plan for Global Tax Info Exchange: Could be Deja Vu All Over Again

Published Feb 14, 2014 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The OECD has released its "Common Reporting Standard," a.k.a. a global "Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information." The plan more or less tracks the so-called "intergovernmental agreements" (IGAs) that the US Treasury is using to try to get the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act working. But the OECD's model for the world differs in two critical respects:

  1. it is based on the global standard of residence-based taxation
  2. it would require reciprocity

One obvious question is whether the US would sign on to this standard, since it represents a major reduction of the massive expansion of the US taxpayer base contemplated by FATCA. If not, can one really envision a world in which everyone shares data reciprocally except the United States, which not only does not share data reciprocally but also places the most expansive demands on everyone else? (For those not following along, the US claims people based on their legal status in the US as well as their actual residence, in contravention of the global norm reflected in the OECD standard, which rejects the former claim in favor of the latter. In terms of reciprocity, what the US calls reciprocal with respect to data sharing is so far reciprocal in name only).

A related issue that already exists under FATCA and will be expanded exponentially under the OECD plan is that reciprocity means every government bears the cost of incorporating expansive financial surveillance (in the case of the US, far beyond that required for all other countries) yet as the Tax Justice Network points out, this formal equality in fact introduces substantive inequality and potentially great harm to poorer countries.

Readers of my prior work (on soft law, on the OECD's norm-creating role, and on its grappling with the issue of sovereignty) will know that I am cautious about the premise of accepting proclamations of the OECD about "global" tax norms.

In the case of residence-based taxation, however, this is not an OECD-created norm but one that dates to the very beginnings of modern income taxation and while flawed is the best available structure if more than one country in the world is going to have an income tax and people are going to be allowed to leave their countries freely if they so choose. Relax either of those assumptions and legal status-based taxation might become technically feasible, though it would still be fundamentally unjust. Neither is the reciprocity norm an OECD invention: instead, its roots trace back to post-Westphalian fundamental international legal principles.

The OECD's forging ahead with a plan that more or less relies heavily on US acceptance is eerily reminiscent of the last OECD attempt to curb tax evasion, via the harmful tax practices initiative. The US first supporting and then completely reversing course eviscerated that effort, thus cementing the status quo we witness today.

US exceptionalism with respect to who should be considered its residents and what it can be compelled to share with other countries cannot help but perpetuate a grave reciprocity imbalance that will only be exacerbated if the US does not sign up to the OECD standard, and the OECD accepts a carve-out to accommodate it.

Given that efforts toward a repeal of FATCA and an ongoing legal challenge to data reporting by US banks are currently unfolding in the US, the OECD's report comes at an interesting juncture in the process of picking up where the harmful tax practices project left off. It could unfortunately foreshadow a repeat of the events that unfolded in that project circa 2001. Or, more optimistically, it could be that the OECD report is a means of giving the US a reason and the political cover to bring its antiquated status-based tax regime up to date with the global residence-based standard, and its one-sided view of the value of data sharing in line with how the rest of the world views things. That would make global automatic data exchange of offshore financial accounts a much more clearly positive development overall, leaving room to focus on solving the other outstanding issues. Only time will tell which way this will unfold.

Tagged as: FATCA international law OECD tax policy

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Davos: cocktail party, soft law generator

Published Jan 24, 2013 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Davos is about as lucrative as it gets in terms of international networking, hence FT's headline: Davos is no conspiracy – it is infotainment. The assessment:

The fact that the World Economic Forum has been going since 1971 and can pull 2,600 professionals away from their desks without knowing precisely why they come is quite an achievement. Any event that can charge SFr22,000 ($23,600) per seat – and up to SFr500,000 for membership – has things to teach rivals.
 But here is the part of interest for those listening for signs of soft law in global governance:
...“It allows bankers or people in business to meet and make deals they couldn’t legally do in their offices,” says Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the Ted conferences.
Not stated: this includes with politicians, policymakers, people who might be closely scrutinized if they meet you in their offices at home, but whose ear you can command at a cocktail party without public scrutiny.  I talked about this phenomenon in this paper, and noted the problems for democracy and accountability in governance when epistemic communities take their deliberations off-line, that is, out of the observable paths of governance and into international networks. In these networks, what these private and public elites are doing doesn't look like lawmaking--they are having cocktails, they are listening to speeches--yet ultimately translates into just that. That is the power and the puzzle of soft law, and we can see hints of it in the FT article:
...Davos is serious – its participants discuss weighty topics and review the state of the world. They hear from policy makers and economists what is going on, and what they think will happen (rightly or wrongly). “Davos is a factory where the conventional wisdom is manufactured,” says David Rothkopf, the author of Power Inc. 
...Third, it is a club. Entrance is tightly restricted and it plays to people’s vanity to be invited, or even permitted to join. ... people pay to be with other people they want to become peers with, or whom they admire. The currency of a club is its members. 
...Corporate membership, star guests, personal contact, intellectual stimulation and parties make a potent combination. The network effect is hard to break, even with reverses such as the anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s. Once a quorum of the elite signed up, Davos grew until everyone complained it was too big.
So, a network of elite normmakers and the elites who want to influence them. If you care about the rule of law and how legal principles and institutions develop through power and influence, you will pay close attention to Davos. However you must concentrate not on what you see but what you don't see.

Tagged as: culture governance institutions rule of law soft law

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Is India not entitled to tax sovereignty?

Published Apr 19, 2012 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Apparently not, according to the US business lobbying industry.  They're putting pressur on Tim Geithner to put pressure on India as it contemplates enacting that controversial post-Vodafone legislation.  As the FT reports today:

A coalition of large American trade associations – mainly from the technology and financial services sectors – sent a letter to Mr Geithner asking him to “raise concerns” about the tax bill in talks with Indian officials during the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund this week.
...The US Treasury declined to comment on the letter to Mr Geithner. He is slated to meet Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian finance minister, this week on the sidelines of the IMF and World Bank gatherings. Pressure from the US lobbying groups will raise the odds that he will press the matter. 
...The pressure on Mr Geithner comes after George Osborne, UK chancellor, made a public intervention on the matter earlier this month on a trip to New Delhi, chastising the Indian government for its proposed changes and warning of potentially harmful effects on trade and investment. 
So now we see how "tax sovereignty" actually works out in practice.   I've long argued that there is no theoretical or empirical basis for the claim that taxation is intrinsically associated with sovereign status, and that the "soft law" nature of international taxation--enforced coordination to standards developed by powerful players through modeling and peer pressure--demonstrates that tax sovereignty isn't minded at all in practice.  This latest move against India's assertion of its sovereign taxing power is further proof.  Who is responsible for all this pressure?

I don't think these folks want to "raise concerns."  I think they want to stop India's democratically elected government from enacting legislation in accordance with its sovereign status as an independent nation, and I find it amazing that they fully expect the U.S. government to help them do that.

This is because of course if businesses really don't like what India is doing, they have a perfectly viable option, which is to do what they say they are going to do, namely, take their assets and go home.  But they do not want to do that.  They want to be able to continue doing business in India at the lowest possible cost to them, and if the Indian government won't play along and give them the tax system they want, these business leaders would like to turn this into a government-to-government conflict so that it is India against the U.S. instead of India minding its own business, writing its own laws, and opening itself to businesses willing to work within its sovereign territory according to its own rules.

Anyone is free to disagree with India's tax policy direction, and anyone is free to express "concerns" about it.  But India's decision belongs to India's people, and it is shameful to see the U.S. business lobby so brazenly insisting on their right to intervene.




Tagged as: corporate tax India lobbying rule of law sovereignty tax culture

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OECD vs. UN and the making of soft tax law

Published Mar 31, 2012 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

TJN recently ran a guest post on the UN's attempt to build an institutional rival to the OECD for international tax policy.  The UN's work is currently confined to a committee, and the G77 would like it "upgraded to an intergovernmental entity."  The OECD and the EU oppose.  The post gives an interesting account of the issues and interests at stake.



Tagged as: EU globalization institutions OECD tax policy UN

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