Skip to content


Explain ISDS to your mum? Here’s why you should do it. And how



“ISDS? Isn’t that the name of the international space station?”

ISDS is an awful system. It allows multinationals to bully our governments by threatening to sue them if they dare pass policies they don’t like.

It is also a complicated subject. Even the acronym ISDS seems designed to bore and confuse people – whether they be your friend, neighbour or your own dear mother.

However, it is important to tell everyone you know about ISDS anyway. It is going to affect them. And unless you happen to be talking to a corporate lawyer, probably in a bad way.

Does your dad use healthcare? Then it’s very possible that pharmaceutical giants will use ISDS to ensure the price of his medication stays high. Does your friend like eating food? Then you’ll want to tell her that ISDS means that companies can sue if the government decides to raise food safety standards.

But how do we explain this? Fear not – for here are five pointers (four ‘do’s and a don’t) for telling those around you all about ISDS:

1.       Do say ISDS is a system that allows big companies to bully governments .

ISDS is not really a primarily system of ‘courts’ or even ‘tribunals’. It’s a system of bullying. A way for companies to force us to give in and let them get their way. Many people associate courts with justice and virtue. But everyone – including your parents – will take a dark view of bullying. Because often just the threat of ISDS legal action can persuade governments to back down. And even when governments win, they often have to pay millions of euros in legal costs. So ISDS means that it’s often much cheaper and easier to just let the corporate bullies get their way.

2.       Do say ISDS means that public services are under threat

Unless you’re reading this in the year 2632 when humans finally evolve the ability to exist without medical care or formal education systems, chances are you are pretty keen on having public services run in the public interest rather than those of corporate shareholders. When your neighbour complains about how expensive their utility bills have got recently you can mention that ISDS has been used to sue countries for keeping them low. Nothing is sacred, even healthcare. Slovakia was sued for establishing a public healthcare system.

3.       Do use examples

There is a veritable treasure trove out there of examples you can use. Obviously, it makes sense to use ones that will be relevant to who you are talking to. So your friend who cares about climate change will be horrified to find out that ISDS has been used to sue a government for imposing a moratorium on fracking. Your cousin who struggled to give up smoking will be equally horrified that Philip Morris tried to sue countries for imposing stronger regulations on cigarette packaging.

4.       Don’t use acronyms.

Leave your ICSs, MICs UNCITRALs, ICSIDs and MFNs at home. It can be easy to get too technical when discussing ISDS. But the most important thing is to communicate the basic principle – that this is a system that privileges a corporate elite over all of the rest of us. And remember also that piecemeal ‘changes’ to the system being discussed are actually not that relevant. They change pretty much nothing. So that saves you talking about quite a few of the acronyms.

5.       Do point out how unfair it all is.

Because it really really is supremely unfair. It’s an expensive global system of so-called ‘justice’ that can only be used by the 1% (actually more like the 0.01%). You or I can’t use ISDS to hold corporations to account when they devastate communities, ruin our public services or otherwise profit from our misery. It is a system by millionaires for millionaires. But remember, we ARE campaigning hard at the UN for a system that will allow us to hold multinationals to account wherever they are from and wherever they commit abuses.

And once you’ve explained that you’re not talking about the International Space Station and have gone through all of this. What next?

Well, that bit is easy. Get them to sign the petition and join the movement