Visualising Uganda’s (and others’) tax treaties

Interesting news from Uganda, where the government announced in its latest budget that it has finished formulating its new tax treaty policy, and will be renegotiating treaties that don’t comply. Seatini and ActionAid Uganda will no doubt chalk this up as a success! The news report linked to above also states that the the government plans to amend the awkwardly-worded anti-treaty-shopping clause in its Income Tax Act, although there are clearly still doubts about its application. According to a report in Tax Notes International, there’s an ongoing mutual agreement procedure between the Netherlands and Uganda to try to settle the ongoing Zain capital gains case, which turns on the applicability of that clause. 105_screen_shot_2016_04_29_at_6_11_10_am

So this is good timing for my working paper with Jalia Kangave, based on a submission we made to the Ugandan government’s review, to have been published by the International Centre for Tax and Development.

Here’s a link to that paper on Researchgate

When writing that paper, I thought that Uganda had a pretty good record of tax treaty negotiations, but some new visualisations of the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset suggest otherwise. For these I am indebted to Zack Korman, and to tax twitter for introducing me to him. Below are some maps Zach has made using the ‘source index’ I developed for the dataset (read more about that here). Red means a residence-based treaty that gives fewer taxing rights to the developing country, while green means a source-based treaty that gives it more taxing rights.

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Links to high-res versions of individual images: Uganda map, Uganda bar chart, Vietnam, Mauritius, UK, Nordics

Uganda’s treaties are pretty red, meaning that most of its treaties restrict its taxing rights much more than average. Looking at the breakdown of the index shows that Uganda has some above-average withholding tax provisions, but its treaties are quite a lot worse than average in other areas. The slide show also gives some other countries for comparison. Vietnam’s treaties are mostly green, while Asian countries have got better deals from Mauritius (an offshore financial centre, not a developing country, in this context) than African ones. The UK’s treaties are pretty red, while the Nordics are very interesting: diverse in content, but consistent among themselves, giving good deals to Kenya and Sri Lanka, and worse ones to Tanzania and Bangladesh. This suggests that more source-based treaties with Nordic countries have been up for grabs for tough-negotiating developing countries.

Below I’ve posted some of Zach’s animated maps, on which it’s easier (and interesting) to follow the developments at earlier stages. There’s lots to comment on, but mostly I just keep watching them. The technical service fees map, at the bottom, is especially interesting, as it shows how countries have changed attitudes over time: watch how Pakistan suddenly changes position in the mid 1980s, for example.


Above: All treaties in the dataset (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: Asia (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: Africa (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: Vietnam (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: UK (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: Nordic countries (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Above: Netherlands (red=residence-based, green=source-based)

Slow WHT

Above: Management, technical service and consultancy fees WHT (green=included, red=excluded)


New data and working paper: measuring tax treaty negotiation outcomes

Today the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) and ActionAid are launching a new dataset that I’ve developed over the last year. It’s the product of over a year’s work, mostly by an intrepid team of research assistants in the LSE law department, to code the content of over 500 tax treaties signed by developing countries. ActionAid, who funded the research assistants’ time, have also used the dataset to construct a league table for their campaigning work, and there’s a piece in the Guardian based on that. (I’m sure the headline, which criticises the UK, will provoke some debate.)

The aim of the dataset project is to make possible a whole lot of new research to get to the bottom of questions that have not been satisfactorily addressed in the literature to date. The jury is still out on whether tax treaties affect investment flows into developing countries, but do certain clauses matter more than others to investors? What determines the outcome of tax treaty negotiations: is it cooperation, power, or competence? What is a good outcome for a developing country from a tax treaty negotiation? Work on trade and investment agreements has already moved from a simple ‘is there a treaty?’ binary to studies based on the content of those agreements. With this dataset, we can do the same for tax treaties.

There’s also a working paper that I’ve written for ICTD, which sets out some of the initial conclusions I drew from simple descriptive work using the dataset. For example, here’s the chart showing how common treaty provisions that allow developing countries to tax foreign service providers have been over time. The difference between the two is that with a ‘service PE’, developing countries can only tax the company’s net profits, and only if it is physically present for a certain length of time; with a WHT clause, they can tax gross payments to foreign service providers, as most do in their domestic law, regardless of whether there is a physical presence.  The growth in both the provisions highlighted is quite notable.dataset1

The story for capital gains is more mixed. Article 13(4) is an anti-avoidance tool that allows a developing country to tax capital gains from the sale of a company whose value is mainly physical assets in the developing country, even if the company is located abroad. It’s becoming more common, which is not surprising since variations on it are included in both the OECD and UN model tax treaties. Article 13(5) gives a developing country the right to tax gains from the sale of any company resident in that country, even if the sale takes place abroad. Interestingly, this provision is becoming more scarce, though countries such as Vietnam have only recently begun to tax in this way in their domestic law. dataset2

I also constructed an index that evaluates the content of 24 different clauses within each tax treaty to assess how much of the developing country’s taxing rights it leaves intact (a higher value means a bigger share of taxing rights for the developing country). This chart shows that treaties between developing countries and OECD members are gradually becoming more favourable to the latter, while in contrast developing countries are starting to get better deals with countries outside the OECD.

Overall negotiated content by date of signature and type of treaty partner


The downward trend is driven by falling withholding tax (WHT) rates, while the upward trend is primarily in permanent establishment (PE) provisions, as we can see by disaggregating the index into these different components.

Average values of category indexes for treaties signed in a given year


This is new information that I don’t think people have been aware of before, so I’m quite excited about it. Here’s the summary of the working paper:

Measuring Tax Treaty Negotiation Outcomes:the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset

This paper introduces a new dataset that codes the content of 519 tax treaties signed by low- and lower-middle- income countries in Africa and Asia. Often called Double Taxation Agreements, bilateral tax treaties divide up the right to tax cross-border economic activity between their two signatories. When one of the signatories is a developing country that is predominantly a recipient of foreign investment, the effect of the tax treaty is to impose constraints on its ability to tax inward investors, ostensibly to encourage more investment.

The merits of tax treaties for developing countries have been challenged in critical legal literature for decades, and studies of whether or not they attract new investment into developing countries give contradictory and inconclusive results. These studies have rarely disaggregated the elements of tax treaties to determine which may be most pertinent to any investment-promoting effect. Meanwhile, as developing countries continue to negotiate, renegotiate, review and terminate tax treaties, comparative data on negotiating histories and outcomes is not easily obtained.

The new dataset fills both these gaps. Using it, this paper demonstrates how tax treaties are changing over time. The restrictions they impose on the rate of withholding tax developing countries can levy on cross-border payments have intensified since 1970. In contrast, the permanent establishment threshold, which specifies when a foreign company’s profits become taxable in a developing country, has been falling, giving developing countries more opportunity to tax foreign investors. The picture with respect to capital gains tax and other provisions is mixed. As a group, OECD countries appear to be moving towards treaties with developing countries that impose more restrictions on the latter’s taxing rights, while non-OECD countries appear to be allowing developing countries to retain more taxing rights than in the past. These overall trends, however, mask some surprising differences between the positions of individual industrialised and emerging economies. These findings pose more questions than they answer, and it is hoped that this paper and the dataset it accompanies will stimulate new research on tax treaties.

Revenue foregone through tax treaties in context

In the recent Tax Justice Network Africa report on tax treaties, I had a go at estimating some costs to governments, based on a back-of-the-envelope figure for cross-border dividend and interests payments.  This is similar to the methodology used by SOMO and the IMF. (It’s a bit rough and ready, because some of the return on FDI figures I used will include reinvested profits, not cross-border remittances, but I’ve seen some other more sophisticated working recently that produces roughly similar figures.)

What I didn’t realise when I wrote that report is that both Uganda and Zambia break out withholding tax revenue (which includes taxes on domestic as well as cross-border payments) in their budgets, so we can set these very rough estimates in context. I’ve been curious for a while to know the order of magnitude of the importance of tax treaties.

The upshot is that revenue foregone from the lower tax rates on qualifying dividends and interest in tax treaties (which is just one part of the revenue foregone through tax treaties) is about 15 percent of withholding tax revenue. As WHT revenue is about 40 percent of corporate tax revenue and five percent of total tax revenue, this means the revenue foregone is something like five percent of corporate tax revenue, and a little less than one percent of total tax revenue.  Here’s how I get there.

Estimating revenue foregone

Here’s the table from the TJN-A report. I take figures for the primary return on foreign direct investment and assume that investment from each country gets the same return. Then I apply the tax rate discount in the treaty to that those estimated flows. The revenue foregone using 2012 data is about US$17m in Uganda and US$42m in Zambia.

wht table


Here’s the table from Uganda’s budget. The 2011/12 withholding tax (WHT) outturn works out at about US$130m using the exchange rate on 1st January 2012. The revenue foregone of US$17m is about 13 percent of total WHT revenue, or 0.7 percent of Uganda’s total tax revenue.



For Zambia I only have the 2014 budget figures, which we can assume with inflation will be larger than those for 2012, the year for which the revenue foregone is estimated, and hence this will be an underestimate of the proportions. WHT foregone of US$42m is 15 percent of the total WHT revenue of US$280m, or 0.8 percent of total tax revenue (using the exchange rate on 1st January 2014).


Since these calculations don’t include the revenue foregone through reduced rates of other withholding taxes on portfolio dividends, royalties and technical service fees, never mind all the other ways in which tax treaties curb taxation of foreign investors, it seems reasonable to conclude that the total of all revenue foregone from Uganda and Zambia’s tax treaties is of the order of several percent of their total government revenue. There may be benefits to offset these costs, but the starting point for a cost/benefit analysis of tax treaties is certainly to estimate the costs!

Tax treaties in sub-Saharan Africa: a critical review

The report I authored for Tax Justice Network-Africa is now available. It’s based on field research done a year ago and has been a little while getting into print.

Here’s a link to read it online at

Here’s a link to download the PDF

Tax treaties in sub-Saharan Africa report cover

And here’s the introduction:

There is growing attention on the question of tax treaties signed by developing countries. The costs of tax treaties to developing countries have been highlighted in recent years by NGOs such as ActionAid and SOMO. During 2014, an influential IMF paper warned that developing countries “would be well-advised to sign treaties only with considerable caution,” and the OECD, as part of its Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, proposes to add text to the commentary of its model treaty to help countries decide “whether a treaty should be concluded with a State but also…whether a State should seek to modify or replace an existing treaty or even, as a last resort, terminate a treaty.”

Meanwhile, some developing countries seem recently to have become concerned by the negative impacts of some of their treaties. Rwanda and South Africa have successfully renegotiated their agreements with Mauritius. Argentina and Mongolia have cancelled or renegotiated several agreements. Responding to this pressure, two of the developed countries whose treaty networks have raised concerns, the Netherlands and Ireland, have begun a process of review.

To investigate this apparent shift in opinion among policymakers, and to see what lessons can be drawn by other developing countries, Tax Justice Network Africa commissioned this study of current policy towards tax treaties in Uganda and Zambia, two countries that appear to be questioning past decisions. Fieldwork, which consisted of interviews with government officials and private sector tax advisers, took place in Kampala and Lusaka in September 2014.

Uganda has announced a review of its policy towards tax treaties, while Zambia is renegotiating several of its treaties. The Ugandan review has several motivations, according to finance ministry officials. The lack of a politically enforced policy to underpin negotiations is one concern. “When I go to negotiate, all I have is my own judgement,” according to a negotiator. “We thought that cabinet should express itself.” Officials are also concerned about the taxation of technical services provided by professionals in the oil industry, and are asking questions about the relatively poor deal Uganda got in its as yet unratified agreement with China.

Zambia, it seems, is keen to update very old treaties that were negotiated on poor terms by over-zealous officials in the 1970s. But a recent treaty signed with China on poor terms has created a difficult precedent, dragging down the terms of its recent negotiation with the UK. Zambia is also encumbered with several colonial-era treaties that need urgent attention.

This report is divided into four following sections. Section 2 describes the historical development of sub-Saharan Africa’s tax treaty network, including some of the reasons given for its development. Uganda and Zambia are used as examples. Section 3 looks at some of the core vulnerabilities in the content of tax treaties signed by African countries, set in the context of weaknesses in their domestic laws. Section 4 provides a critical perspective on recent initiatives taken by individual countries, regional organisations and other international organisations.

Section 5 provides recommendations for African countries. In summary, they should:

  • Review all their existing tax treaties and domestic legislation, to identify areas where they are most vulnerable to revenue loss. This should include permanent establishment definitions, protection from treaty shopping, and withholding and capital gains taxes.
  • Formulate ambitious national models by applying a “best available” approach to existing models (EAC, COMESA, UN), current treaties, and domestic legislation, none of which are currently adequate.
  • Identify red lines for negotiations from within these models.
  • Based on investment and remittance data, request renegotiations of treaties that have the greatest actual (or potential in terms of capital gains) cost. These renegotiations should be conducted on the basis of an improved distribution of taxing rights, not a “balanced” negotiation.
  • Cancel these high-impact treaties if the red lines cannot be obtained.
  • Incorporate an assessment of tax foregone due to tax treaties into an annual breakdown of tax expenditures.
  • Ensure that all tax treaties are subject to parliamentary approval as part of the ratification process.
  • Ensure that future updates to provisions of the UN and OECD model treaties, or to their commentaries and reservations/observations, reflect the positions set out in their national models.
  • Strengthen the African model treaties (EAC, COMESA, SADC) so that they act as opposite poles to the OECD model, rather than compromises between the UN and OECD models.

Some follow-up on parliamentary scrutiny of the UK-Senegal treaty

As my last post anticipated, the ratification of the UK-Senegal tax treaty was debated in parliament last week. It was great that a debate on the impact of a tax treaty between the UK and a developing country happened at all. Some important issues came up:

  • What is the role of the Department for International Development in the UK’s treaty policy with respect to developing countries? None, on the basis of the reply from the minister, David Gauke.
  • Why is there no cost-benefit or development impact analysis of the UK’s treaties with developing countries? Mr Gauke said that it would not be possible to do this in a meaningful way, although as this post by Francis Weyzig points out, Ireland and the Netherlands have both now published analyses that do consider the effects of their treaties on developing countries.
  • Does the UK government bear any moral responsibility for the outcome of a negotiation with another sovereign state? That is certainly an interesting point for further consideration.

This was a good start in comparison to last year’s discussion of the UK-Zambia treaty, but these topics were still only skated over. The format of these ‘debates’ is always the same: the opposition shadow minister asks some questions, the minister responds from his briefing notes, and then the committee votes ‘yes’. It is near impossible to have a real discussion about substantive matters, such as the UK’s red line on a withholding tax clause for technical service fees (discussed below). This is partly because of the mountain of treaty detail within which substantive issues are hidden, but also because all parliament can do is vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ after the treaty has been signed.

There are two things the UK could do about this, which other countries have done. First, it could commission a comparative review, along the lines of those that have now been conducted for Ireland and the Netherlands, which highlights the main distinctive features of its treaties with developing countries so that non specialist MPs can engage with them meaningfully. Second, it could publish its treaty negotiating position, as Germany and the US have both done, with an opportunity for public and parliamentary debate on this position in general terms.

Now, some technical discussion. The night before the debate, I bumped into one of the British negotiators, who said he was “not very impressed” with my post on the treaty. The next day, the Labour opposition asked some questions based on input from ActionAid, which followed the same lines as my comments. The minister responded with much the same criticism I’d heard the previous night, so I’m going here to set the record straight on the technical points, insofar as I can from my non-technical background.

Technical service fees

I stated last week that “this treaty does not include a clause permitting Senegal to tax fees for technical services paid to the UK,” but this was imprecise wording. As Mr Gauke pointed out, the treaty does permit such fees to be taxed in Senegal, but with a major restriction. They can only be taxed in Senegal if the British recipient of the fees has a physical presence in Senegal for 183 days in a year. Even then, the fees can only be taxed as net profits, not gross fees as the standalone clause would have allowed for. The whole debate at the UN on this clause begins from the view that a physical presence is increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century economy, and that it is very difficult for developing countries to get an accurate view of a service provider’s net profits.

As the minister continued, “Senegal’s approach to the taxation of services differs from that of the UK,” and this is one area where the UK approach prevailed. This appears to be a red line for the UK now, but it’s worth noting that (on a quick count) Great Britain has nine treaties with sub-Saharan countries that do permit them to tax technical services without a physical presence. Senegal is arguably therefore disadvantaged relative to quite a few of its regional neighbours.

Supervisory activities

As I noted last week, the UK-Senegal treaty doesn’t follow the UN model treaty [pdf] wording on supervisory activities in connection with a building site, which states (my emphasis):

The term “permanent establishment” also encompasses: (a) A building site, a construction, assembly or installation project or supervisory activities in connection therewith, but only if such site, project or activities last more than six months

I said in my post that this means “supervisory activities associated with a building site in Senegal conducted by a British firm will not be taxable in Senegal,” but as Mr Gauke clarified, the treaty “does allow that” in practice. This is because the commentary to the OECD model tax treaty has been amended to incorporate it. It states in paragraph 5.17:

On-site planning and supervision of the erection of a building are covered by paragraph 3. States wishing to modify the text of the paragraph to provide expressly for that result are free to do so in their bilateral conventions.

The International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation (IBFD), in a commentary on the differences between the UN and OECD models, seems to concur that there is no longer any substantive difference between the two on this point:

According to the UN Model, supervisory activities are covered by this provision, irrespective of whether they are performed by the main contractor or subcontractor. The OECD Model does not include these activities in the text of the construction clause. According to the OECD Commentary, supervisory activities were, until 2003, explicitly subsumed under the construction clause provided the work was performed by the main contractor itself. Supervisory activities performed by a subcontractor were not, however, considered to be covered by this provision. This difference between the OECD and UN Models disappeared due to the changes to the OECD Commentary in 2003. The supervisory activities of a subcontractor were then also considered to be covered by the provision.

But the difference does seem to be important to many countries. They prefer to take the UN option of explicitly providing for the taxation of supervisory activities, rather than leaving it to a clarification in the commentary on page 101 of the 496-page model treaty. Turning to the reservations and observations published alongside the OECD model, twenty countries, including six OECD members, have made an official note along the lines that they reserve the right to have the supervisory activities wording included in their treaties. They are: Australia, Korea, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, Mexico, Portugal, Albania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hong Kong, Serbia, Argentina, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia. There is also the following anomalous note:

Bulgaria does not adhere to the interpretation, given in paragraph 17 of the Commentary on Article 5, and is of the opinion that supervision of a building site or a construction project, where carried on by another person, are not covered by paragraph 3 of the Article, if not expressly provided for.

Royalties for TV and radio broadcasts

I also pointed out that the treaty was unusual in not including a reference to TV and radio broadcasts in its definition of royalties. The UN model states (my emphasis):

The term “royalties” as used in this Article means payments of any kind received as a consideration for the use of, or the right to use, any copyright of literary, artistic or scientific work including cinematograph films, or films or tapes used for radio or television broadcasting,

Again, I said that this meant such payments could not be taxed by Senegal. The minister responded that, “the OECD commentary on the provision makes clear that cinematographic films include material for TV broadcast.” It does indeed state at paragraph 12.10 that:

Rents in respect of cinematograph films are also treated as royalties, whether such films are exhibited in cinemas or on the television.

But this is a little more restrictive than the UN wording, as there is no mention of radio. Of course, this may be splitting hairs, especially as only Argentina and Vietnam have observations in the OECD model on this point. But this time the IBFD discussion seems to support the view that there is a substantive difference here:

As the OECD Model does not include, in the definition of the term “royalties”, payments made as a consideration for the use of, or the right to use, films or tapes used for radio or television broadcasting, the UN Model deviates in this respect from the OECD Model.

Questions the opposition should ask about the new UK-Senegal tax treaty

Back in February, the UK and Senegal signed a bilateral tax treaty. The treaty is up for ratification this week, so I thought it time to take a look. Ratification happens through the delegated legislation committee, and entails very little debate. The last time a treaty between the UK and a developing country was ratified, I thought it was a shame that there had not been more discussion, which is why I’m writing in advance this time. I’ve also commented in the past, as did ActionAid and Mike Lewis, on the Danish treaty with Ghana.

So what questions might an interested Shadow Financial Secretary ask during this ratification debate? Here are three suggestions.

First, they might ask about a few of the provisions within the treaty that disadvantage Senegal and that seem to go against modern negotiating trends. The table below shows some provisions within the UK-Senegal treaty that follow the OECD model (which favours the developed country) rather than the UN model (which is supposed to reflect a good balance in a negotiation between a developed and a developing country). The first of the three percentage columns shows that these are all provisions that have been included in the majority of treaties signed by developing countries in recent years; the second shows that they are included in the majority of Senegal’s treaties; the third shows how often the UK has conceded them to developing countries.

Selected provisions from the UK-Senegal tax treaty in context

Data source: ActionAid tax treaties dataset, forthcoming

The treaty is particularly unusual in that supervisory activities associated with a building site in Senegal conducted by a British firm will not be taxable in Senegal, nor will royalties paid to the UK for radio and TV programmes broadcast in Senegal. Both of these provisions are included in around 90% of tax treaties signed by developing countries, but are omitted from this one. It would certainly be interesting to ask why.

Second, it is notable that this treaty does not include a clause permitting Senegal to tax fees for technical services paid to the UK. This is something that Senegal’s chief negotiator has for years advocated strongly for, including in this submission to the UN tax committee [pdf]. The UK has many older treaties with developing countries that include this provision, but more recently it seems to have changed position, opposing them. In this negotiation, it looks like Senegal made a concession on this point. This is a contentious issue at the UN tax committee, but the committee – which has members from the UK and Senegal – looks to be heading towards including it within its model treaty. It would therefore be very interesting for politicians to debate the UK’s position.

Third, the ratification debate on this treaty could be an opening for a broader discussion of what the UK aims to achieve through its tax treaties with developing countries. To set this in context, in the chart below, every point represents a tax treaty signed by a developing country, with the vertical axis showing how source-based it is (that is, how much its content permits the developing country to tax investors from the treaty partner). The higher the point, the more the balance of the treaty tends towards the developing country’s favour. There’s a leisurely upward trend.

Source/residence balance in tax treaties: UK and Senegal highlighted

Data source: index based on the forthcoming ActionAid tax treaties dataset

The UK’s agreements with developing countries are in red, while Senegal’s are in blue. The UK-Senegal treaty is purple. While it looks to be about average for both countries, it is certainly one of the more restrictive (“residence-based”) treaties signed by developing countries in recent years. This seems to be typical of treaties signed recently by the UK, but a worse deal for Senegal than it has obtained for a few years. The implication that the UK is one of the toughest tax negotiators with developing countries is surely worth political interrogation, at a time when its Department for International Development is urging developing countries to improve tax collection.

The tax treaty arbitrators cometh

Next month sees the results of the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit-Shifting project, as well as a discussion at the UN tax committee on alternative dispute resolution in tax treaties. India has apparently vetoed the inclusion of mandatory binding arbitration by default in the OECD model tax treaty, and it remains an optional provision within the UN model too. This post will show that arbitration provisions in treaties with developing countries are nonetheless on the march, and it will discuss some of the issues that this raises. It is taken from some comments I submitted alongside Todd Tucker on a draft paper for the UN committee’s discussion.

I’ve just returned from a field visit to, among other countries, Vietnam. With around 60 tax treaties in force, it’s been one of the most enthusiastic concluders of tax treaties over the last two and a half decades. It’s also quite clear that the General Department of Taxation regrets some of the things that the country gave away in its early negotiations. It is endeavouring to apply some provisions of these treaties in unconventional ways, and coming under pressure from foreign businesses who say that by doing so it is breaking with international norms. I sat in on a large meeting between the Vice Minister of Finance and Vietnam Business Forum (VBF) members, at which these concerns were raised. According to a typical statement from the VBF [pdf], Vietnam’s interpretations have “made the application of DTA[s] of foreign enterprises impossible, effectively it obliterate[s] the legitimate benefit of enterprises.”

As a consequence, Korean investors have recently begun to invoke the mutual agreement procedure (MAP) in the Korea-Vietnam tax treaty. Vietnam’s first ever MAP negotiation was taking place while I was there. MAPs, remember, do not require the two countries to reach an agreement, just to try their best. The resulting backlog of disputes among OECD countries is the reason why the OECD now seems to favour mandatory binding arbitration. Vietnam does not want to see mandatory binding arbitration clauses in its tax treaties, having already had its fingers burnt with investor-state arbitration. I am informed that such a clause was proposed by the US and rejected by Vietnam when the two countries negotiated their new tax treaty.

Vietnam said no, but others have not. One outcome of the Netherlands’ programme of renegotiations with developing countries, which is supposed to be about adding anti-abuse clauses, has been the insertion of binding arbitration clauses in several treaties with African countries. Here are all the arbitration clauses in African tax treaties to date (based on searching the IBFD tax treaties database for the term ‘arbitration’). They key column to look at is “how triggered”. Whereas the Canadian and Italian arbitration clauses require both countries’ consent before the case enters arbitration, all the others, following the OECD and UN model provisions, are binding on the developing country and can be triggered by either the other country or the taxpayer. The rest of the typology indicates that, as per usual, OECD-type provisions are more common than UN-type ones, even though the latter are supposed to be better for the developing country.

Arbitration clauses in African tax treaties

If we search for the term ‘arbitration’ in the IBFD tax treaties database, there are 219 results (caveat: not all of these references might be to ‘an arbitration clause’ as such, and some foreign-language treaties may have been missed). As the table below shows, arbitration clauses are of particular importance to jurisdictions whose treaty networks are used as part of tax planning strategies. By far the most arbitration clauses are in the treaty networks of the Netherlands and Switzerland, although the presence of Liechtenstein and Luxembourg in the top 10 list may also be indicative. At least two of the Swiss clauses, in its treaties with Peru and Argentina, are actually Most-Favoured Nation clauses triggered if the Latin American countries agree to binding arbitration with a third country. This suggests that, for Switzerland at least, arbitration clauses are important for its competitive position.

List of countries by number of tax treaties with some kind of arbitration clause

Here are a few issues that are presented by the spread of arbitration provisions that are binding on developing countries:

  1. There is barely any MAP experience in many developing countries. Interviews with revenue authority staff across numerous developing countries indicate that, outside perhaps the BRICS, many countries have yet to enter into a single MAP. Vietnam is a typical example. So the case for arbitration based on the huge backlog in OECD and G-20 countries is simply not there in many other countries, and may never be. Furthermore, that developing countries do not have the same experience of MAP negotiations as developed countries is a further reason why they should wait before agreeing to mandatory binding arbitration. If arbitration is designed primarily to increase pressure for a resolution in MAP, then the pressure on a developing country to capitulate at this stage will surely be increased by its inexperience in arbitration as well as MAP.
  2. The current UN model provision does not provide for the possibility of optional arbitration. If arbitration helps solves a structural problem in tax treaties, it is good for developing countries to consider it. But one way for them to take it slow is to sign up for clauses that create the option of arbitration without forcing them into it, such as those in the Italian and Canadian treaties with African countries. With such a provision, developing countries could build up some experience before deciding whether mandatory and binding arbitration is right for them. Unfortunately, this is not the current path taken by the UN committee, and so there’s little chance of developing countries obtaining it in negotiations.
  3. Arbitration enhances the negative impact of negotiation oversights. We know that, as in the case of Vietnam’s early treaties, the present impact was often not anticipated at the time the agreements were signed. While this situation has improved in some developing countries, in others, treaties are still being concluded now without adequate awareness among all parties of how they will bind future governments. There are various reasons for this, including: lack of technical expertise at the time of negotiation; politically driven negotiations in which the content of these treaties is barely considered; changing tax systems and economic conditions, especially the growth of e-commerce and services; new tax planning mechanisms; the relative autonomy of a small set of negotiators; weak or non-existent parliamentary ratification processes. Binding arbitration will further enhance this ‘golden straightjacket’ impact of tax treaties, reducing room to manoeuvre in cases where latter day tax treaties frustrate present day policy goals. This would especially be the case if a multilateral instrument were used retrospectively to add arbitration provisions to existing tax treaties.

A final thought. There are lots of reasons why eliminating all forms of double taxation faced by cross-border investors is a sensible thing to try to do. It is what tax treaties are supposed to be for. But sometimes governments, especially in developing countries, might deliberately choose to prioritise the maximisation of their tax base even when that leads to some double taxation. This is, arguably, what China, India and Brazil have done by adopting their own approaches to transfer pricing. Perhaps it is good if tax treaties leave sufficient space for this, so long as countries take seriously the repercussions of making use of that space.