01 September 2023

How private companies lobbied for better investment protection during decolonisation

In his master dissertation, Nicolas Hafner recounts how private companies attempted to better protect their investments in times of mounting legal uncertainty from the late 1950s through the 1960s. As such, their project sought to advance and anchor particular ideas and legal norms couched in ostensibly universal terms within the emerging post-World War II world order. Based on sources of the International Association for the Promotion and Protection of Private Foreign Investments (APPI), he describes the corporate lawyers’ “legal imaginary”, shows how the APPI lobbied its ideas with national governments, and how it used the strategy of forum shopping at the international level to advance its goals. This remarkable study was awarded the 2022 Arditi Prize in International Relations.

Why did you choose to focus on international investment? Did you have a particular interest or intuition?

This was more an accident than anything else. The historian Lea Haller drew my attention to the largely unknown history of corporate lawyers who (are supposed to have) played an important role in helping companies move to Switzerland. These lawyers are the architects of multinational corporate structures that allow money to be accumulated in tax-favourable places while business is done abroad. One of their instruments is the holding company, of which there are thousands in Switzerland. When I looked at the archival records of the Association of Swiss Holding and Finance Companies, an umbrella organisation, I noticed that in the 1950s and 1960s, its member companies were worried about decolonisation’s impact on their investments abroad. Meeting minutes referred to the important work done by the International Association for the Promotion and Protection of Private Foreign Investments (APPI) in lobbying for an international legal regime to “safeguard” investments abroad. And so, I ended up following the paper trail left behind by the APPI.

What is the strategy of forum shopping at the international level? And to what do you apply it?

In its strict sense, the term describes the practice of moving one’s case to the jurisdiction or court deemed most likely to rule a case in one’s favour. At the international level, it means that actors such as the APPI carefully consider in which forum they lobby for their policy goals – or where they try to suppress discussions. For instance, the APPI perceived the OECD and the World Bank as allies in its quest for a better legal protection of investments. On the other hand, there is evidence that in the early 1960s, the APPI through its personal connections lobbied sympathetic governments such as Germany to stifle talks on investment protection at the UN. It feared that such discussions might result in obligations rather than rights for private investors.

A section of your dissertation is entitled Without a Taint of Colonialism: Geneva and Switzerland as the Ideal Seat. Could you elaborate on this?

The first half of the title is a literal quote from the earliest documents of the APPI. In the minutes of their inaugural meeting in Geneva, the businessmen and legal experts that founded the APPI noted that it was preferable not to be associated with colonialism, Big Oil, and great power politics. In their view, Switzerland had a reputation of being neutral in these matters and thus was the ideal seat for their organisation. After all, one of its goals was to convince government representatives of recently independent nations that foreign investments (at the time mostly in natural resources) were something positive and needed adequate protection. However, Switzerland has been far from neutral in these matters, as scholars have shown over the past few decades.



Newspaper report in the Aargauer Zeitung from 14 April 1964 entitled “Banker Dr Abs has arrived.” Hermann J. Abs can be found in the centre of the image (holding a bag). Of all the businesspeople assembled in the APPI, Abs might have been the most famous and powerful. He held a seat on the board of most of West Germany’s big corporations, headed the Deutsche Bank for many years, and enjoyed privileged access to administrations beyond Germany. In 1964, Abs led an APPI delegation to Peru and Argentina whose goal was to dissuade the countries’ governments from nationalising some oil companies operating there. 
Photo credits: Swiss Federal Archives (BAR), E2200.60-02#1981/57#28 (D.24.1.1): APPI = Association Internationale d’Études pour la Protection des Investissements privés en territoires étrangers.


Thomas David and Bouda Etemad for example speak of Swiss imperialism, pointing to the imperial “weapon” of relative wealth and the power of its financial market. This, together with their technological and organisational advantages, helped private companies to exploit overseas riches. After WWII, David and Etemad claim that Swiss economic expansion abroad increasingly overlapped with (official) Swiss humanitarian and technical cooperation policies whose roots lay in missionary activity. This ostensibly friendly image yielded interest in the form of symbolic capital and perhaps privileged access to markets. 

What lessons can we learn from your results, in 2023?

Maybe that things that we perceive as fairly recent can have a much longer, less known history. Companies have only in the last few decades begun to file claims against states regarding their investments. But the foundations for the system that enables them to do this were laid in the 1950s and 1960s with the conclusion of the first bilateral investment treaties. And more generally, it is important to critically reflect on concepts such as “free markets”. A capitalist economy is always organised, based on rules. Investments abroad or trade in goods and services don’t just happen, but are enabled by rules that in turn needs to be crafted. Thus, it is less about how “free” a market is, but about the continuous (re)configuration of the (legal) framework that governs any economic activity. There is a lot of politics in this, and it shows how misleading another concept can be, the division between “public” and “private”. Corporations depend on states to draft and enforce the rules governing their activities. The allegedly strict separation of the private and public dominions in law veils and facilitates the close cooperation of private enterprise and certain states in rulemaking. Company lawyers have often worked hand in hand with legal experts of International Organisations or public administrations.

A word about your activities today…

I am currently a PhD student in the Department of International History and Politics. My project looks at and through the Geneva Africa Institute (later Graduate Institute of Development Studies, IUED) from the 1960s until the 1980s. This was a fascinating place bringing together people from various backgrounds and of conflicting convictions, from anticolonial/anti-authoritarian activists to state functionaries, development practitioners and critics. This melange provided a fertile ground for innovative and critical thought that remains relevant to this day.

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In September 2022, Nicolas Hafner won the Arditi Prize in International Relations for his master’s dissertation, “Attempting to Write the Rules of International Investment Law: How Private Corporations Sought to Protect Their Interests Abroad (The Untold Story of the APPI)”, written under the supervision of Professor Cyrus Schayegh and of Professor Matthieu Leimgruber, Second Reader. Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the dissertation on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others can contact the author at
The Arditi Prize in International Relations, which was created in 1993 by the Arditi Foundation, is awarded each year to the best master’s dissertation in international studies or international affairs. 

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Banner image: Maykova Galina/