Inside the ICSID Secretariat - Benjamin Garel: Legal Counsel
What brought you to ICSID?
I was enthused by the idea that I could practice international arbitration in the branch that I have always preferred, i.e., investment arbitration, in an arbitral institution, which I had not done thus far in my career, and in the leading institution at that. The perspective of being tribunal secretary in each case assigned to me was particularly exciting, since it meant, in my mind, that the job would never get repetitive, monotonous, or boring. Each case and each tribunal being different, I imagined that joining ICSID would provide me with always-renewed opportunities to meet and learn from outstanding arbitrators, work on complex and enthralling legal issues, whether substantive or procedural, and participate in the development of the field. The nine-plus years that have lapsed since I joined ICSID have proven my expectations to be not only true, but also somewhat understated.
What is your role at ICSID and what does a typical day looks like?
I am a legal counsel in one of the case management teams. I am in charge of a number of cases (around 10 on average, sometimes more, rarely less), mostly in English but some in French or bilingual, in which, as mentioned before, I act as tribunal secretary. The overarching goal of an ICSID legal counsel/tribunal secretary is to ensure that the case, from inception to conclusion, progresses smoothly, in accordance with the applicable procedural provisions (ICSID Convention, Additional Facility, Arbitration Rules, Administrative and Financial Regulations, to name just a few). That entails liaising with, assisting and guiding the Parties and the Tribunal whenever necessary, be it spontaneously or upon request, throughout the life of the case. Issues—old and new, simple and complex—come up all the time and there is a not a week, if not a day, that looks like the previous one.
In addition to case work, we also organize and deliver training seminars and workshops—often for the benefit of government officials—speak at conferences, and publish articles. We also participate in institutional projects of all sorts, such as the amendments of the ICSID rules and regulations, which were adopted and entered into force last year after over five years of intense yet captivating efforts. As I said, the reality of working as legal counsel at ICSID greatly exceeded my already enthusiastic expectations.
You have a reputation for being one of ICSID’s more technically savvy lawyers. Can you give us an example of one of your ideas or solutions that has had an impact at ICSID?
I am honored. I can give two examples. First, when Covid hit and remote hearings became, overnight, a reality which we quickly had to adopt and adapt to, my colleagues and I put together, in just a few days, a set of guidelines for remote hearings to ensure that all hearings participants (arbitrators, counsel, court reporters, interpreters, etc.) were ready to switch to and use efficiently—without glitches or frustration—the required technologies (both hardware and software). This, together with countless hours of tech support and testing, allowed the Centre to remain operational without much disruption in the conduct of cases.
Second, in a case where the Parties agreed, for the first time in an ICSID proceeding, on the application of the UNCITRAL Rules on Transparency, I helped the Tribunal establish a protocol on the handling of confidential information during the hearing, which was going to be broadcast live, from the World Bank hearing centre in Paris, to the public. That protocol provided for the use of red and green cards (highly technological as you can tell) to signal all hearing participants and the video technician that the broadcast should be suspended, when confidential information was discussed, and resumed thereafter. On the first day of hearing, I realized quickly that once a red card was raised, the party that called for a suspension of the broadcast as well as the other side and the Tribunal lost track of the status of the hearing and often omitted to call for the resumption of the broadcast (which was defeating the purpose of an open hearing). When the hearing was adjourned at the end of the first day, I went to my favorite hardware store (I hail from Paris) and purchased components (wire, socket, plug, bulb, threaded rods, remote, etc.) to build a color changing lamp to be placed in the centre of the room and that I would turn red or green, as necessary, thereby reminding all participants in the room of the transparency status of the hearing at any given time. That proved to be really helpful throughout the hearing. The protocol and the color changing lamp were subsequently reused in hearings in other cases. A few years later, ICSID designed and built its own state-of-the-art hearing centre and each of the three hearing rooms is equipped with a built-in transparency signaling system inspired by that lamp, which I am now using in my office to signal colleagues whether I am free or busy.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I am an avid photographer. I also like to fix or improve stuff, be it in my house, at my friends’ or for my colleagues. I live by the French proverb “on est jamais mieux servi que par soi-même” (one is never better served than by himself), which gets me to constantly learn new trades. And since I like to help others, they get to benefit from it. I also enjoy walks on the beach and bike rides on the weekends with my wife and 4-year-old son in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which we discovered and fell in love with during the pandemic. Finally, I am a big classical music and opera fan and I try to listen to it as much as I can.