Reflecting on a Year Online: Lessons from a survey of international investment negotiators

This report examines the opportunities, challenges, and consequences of virtual negotiations based on an analysis of a survey of officials participating in two investment negotiations that moved to virtual sessions due to COVID-19.
By Zoe Williams, Taylor St John on July 15, 2021

How do you negotiate online? In early 2020, officials and governments found themselves facing this question as the coronavirus pandemic led to in-person negotiations being paused indefinitely. For the first time, large global talks hosted by multilateral organizations moved online. Virtual negotiations were a necessity given the circumstances. The move online was framed as a short-term substitute to keep these processes moving during the pandemic. Yet, virtual negotiations may endure long past the pandemic, given the climate emergency and longer-term trends toward more virtual meetings and heavier reliance on digital technologies.

Whether they are temporary or permanent, it is important to examine the opportunities, challenges, and consequences of virtual negotiations—such as what these mean for informal interactions, coalition building, participation and inclusiveness, costs, and climate impact.

This report explores these issues, based on an analysis of a survey of officials participating in two negotiations in investment that made the move to virtual sessions: the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Working Group III on investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) reform and the Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) on investment facilitation, held among a group of members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The authors conclude their analysis with thoughts for the future, reviewing how survey respondents hope to see negotiations evolve, along with the authors' own suggestions for how virtual negotiations could be improved.

Participating experts