The spate of investment treaty arbitrations that have inundated developing countries in recent times has now reached Nepal. At stake is a Rs39.06 billion tax imposed by the Large Taxpayers Office (LTO) on Ncell, following a decision of the Supreme Court.
Ncell subsequently contested the LTO tax assessment, submitting that it is liable to pay only Rs14.5 billion. It also obtained an interlocutory interim stay from the Supreme Court on these grounds.
The initiation of investment treaty arbitration by Axiata Investment UK Ltd (Axiata UK) through an intermediate special purpose vehicle not directly investing in Nepal, while challenging the same action before the Supreme Court of Nepal and bypassing other statutory remedies, raises several questions as to the use of investment treaty arbitration and the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).
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Axiata UK filed a request for arbitration before the ICSID against the Government of Nepal regarding the capital gains tax levied by Nepal’s tax authorities on the indirect transfer to Axiata UK of an 80% stake in Ncell through the sale of Reynolds Holdings Limited, by the previous foreign investor, TeliaSonera Norway Nepal Holdings AS to Axiata UK.
The arbitration was initiated on the basis of the bilateral investment treaty between the governments of Nepal and the UK (UK-Nepal BIT) on 2 March 1993. In parallel, Ncell has also initiated proceedings before the Supreme Court of Nepal challenging the CGT assessment by the tax authorities.
In doing so, Ncell and its indirect shareholder Axiata UK have not availed statutory remedies otherwise available under Nepal’s law to challenge the assessment. This presents the government with some credible arguments to resist the investment treaty claims.
First, it is doubtful whether Axiata UK’s indirect acquisition of Ncell’s shares qualifies as an ‘investment’ in terms of Article 1(a) read with Article 8(1) of the UK-Nepal BIT. Axiata UK’s role in the transaction is limited to its acquisition of Reynolds, which owns 80% of the shares of Ncell.
Moreover, Axiata UK is a wholly owned subsidiary of Malaysia-based Axiata Group Berhad. The Government of Nepal could argue that Axiata UK Ltd has no real interest in the transaction and is merely being used as a vehicle to bypass the jurisdictional hurdle of the UK-Nepal BIT.
Previous investment treaty arbitrations have found that a mere passive investor, such as a company which conducts no business of its own but merely holds shares in a company incorporated in the host state, will not be able to invoke the jurisdiction under a bilateral investment treaty.
It could be argued that Axiata UK is required to exhaust local remedies before resorting to arbitration under the UK-Nepal BIT. The ICSID Convention expressly provides that if a dispute arises, parties may refer the dispute to arbitration if they are unable to resolve it within three months ‘through pursuit of local remedies or otherwise’.
By its decision on 6 February, the Supreme Court held that capital gains tax could be levied on the transaction. Thereafter, the capital gains tax was computed by the assessing authority, and this assessment was also challenged by Ncell by way of a writ petition before the Supreme Court on 21 April. Subsequently, Axiata UK submitted its request for arbitration, as announced on 26 April.
The sequence of events shows that the decision to invoke arbitration under the UK-Nepal BIT was made immediately pursuant to the calculation of capital gains tax liability, instead of pursuing local remedies to challenge the assessment. The strategy of ignoring statutory remedies and instead relying on constitutional and investment treaty protections appears to have been motivated by the desire to avoid the requirement of depositing one-third of the disputed tax liability as a condition to challenge the assessment under Nepali tax laws.
The government can now argue that the invocation of arbitration is against the letter and spirit of the UK-Nepal BIT and the ICSID Convention.
Ncell’s present challenge before the Supreme Court is limited to the amount of tax, and Ncell has itself admitted a portion of the liability. It is questionable whether a dispute on the quantum of tax can be referred to arbitration under the UK-Nepal BIT.
In matters involving taxation, a claim for expropriation will ordinarily involve showing that the tax liability in question has been imposed as part of a designed and deliberate set of measures to deprive the investor of the value of their investment. Such claims in previous cases have typically involved retrospective legislation where local tax law has been applied in a patently arbitrary and discriminatory manner by the host state. Establishing such a high threshold may be difficult for Axiata UK.
The Government of Nepal can now consider all options available, including raising preliminary objections on jurisdiction under Rule 41 of the ICSID Arbitration Rules and Article 41 of the ICSID Convention, at the earliest.
Semanta Dahal and Vikas Mahendra are lawyers and partners at Abhinawa Law Chambers (Nepal) and Keystone Partners (India).