Should we care whether the UN Watercourses Convention enters into force? – Part I

The following post (Part I of II), by Dr. Alistair Rieu-Clarke (a.rieuclarke [at], IHP-HELP Centre for Water Law, Policy & Science (under the auspices of UNESCO) and Ms. Flavia Loures (flavia.loures [at], WWF, is based on experiences gained through a range of activities conducted as part of the UN Watercourses Convention Global Initiative.

During Rio+20, UK and Irish representatives announced that their respective Governments would accede to the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) to ensure that the world’s 276 international watercourses were governed in an equitable and sustainable manner. These announcements follow a growing wave of support for the Convention’s entry into force, which has recently seen Luxembourg become the 26th contracting state, followed by Benin only a few weeks ago. Moreover, various global and regional institutions have urged States to accede to the Convention, including the European Commission (see Resolution 2012/2552(RSP)), the Niger Basin Authority  (see 2011 Bamako Declaration) and African Basin Organisations (see 2011 Bangkok Declaration).

Anticipation of the Convention’s imminent entry into force has also prompted the question, ‘what next’? In this regard, at the 6th World Water Forum (Marseille, March 2012), France offered to host the 1st meeting of the parties, and UN organisations, including the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), UNESCO and UNEP, were identified as potential candidates for ‘housing’ the Convention – whatever form that might take.

As momentum finally gathers around the UNWC – a keystone global legal instrument adopted over 15 years ago – the question at the forefront of discussions is, ‘why should we care’? Would entry into force of a global framework instrument on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses really make a difference?

From the legal standpoint, a primary driver behind the UNWC was the codification and progressive development of international water law, which, in 1970, was recognised by the UN General Assembly as, ‘still based in part on general principles and rules of customary law’ (see  UN General Assembly Resolution 2669(XXV)). The value of the Convention was, therefore, to provide greater detail, clarity and certainty as to what was, and what should be, the applicable international law pertaining to the non-navigational uses of international watercourses.

Simply through its adoption by an overwhelming majority of UN Member States – after an extensive process of treaty drafting and negotiation – the Convention presents an authoritative statement of customary international law. In the Gabĉíkovo-Nagymaros case, for instance, the International Court of Justice made explicit reference to the UNWC only months after its adoption by the General Assembly. Additionally, numerous basin and sub-basin agreements adopted after 1997 have been influenced by the Convention: in the case of the SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses, many of the key provisions were taken from the Convention almost verbatim.

Although the UNWC already enjoys an influential role, its current status leaves open to debate which of its provisions reflect existing or emerging customary law, as well as the content of those principles widely accepted as custom. If the Convention were to enter into force, it is likely to trigger a snowball effect, leading to wider ratification by a representative body of states. At that point, all its provisions would be considered as reflecting customary international law and thus become potentially binding even on non-parties.  Entry into force would also consolidate the content of the principles of equitable and reasonable use and harm prevention, as well as their relationship, as codified under the UNWC.

In this sense, entry into force and widespread ratification are necessary to ensure the successful completion of the task entrusted to the International Law Commission: that of codifying, clarifying and progressively developing the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses, with a view to offering a clearer, more stable framework for transboundary water cooperation at the global level.

It was for this reason that, during the Convention’s drafting process, the Nordic Countries cautioned that, ‘this [framework] approach should not lead solely to producing recommendations’ (see replies of Governments to the Commission’s questionnaire at A/CN.4/447, 1993). The statement alludes to the importance of a legally binding framework instrument. A legally binding text holds greater potential for shaping state practice at the basin level. The ratification process itself normally requires the government to conduct an extensive consultation process with a wide range of national stakeholders. Ratification also tends to provide a stronger assurance that the rules and principles contained within that instrument will be adhered to not only by the government in power, but also by its successors.

That said, an effective and widely endorsed UNWC, on its own, might have limited impact. For the Convention to fully meet its potential in supporting and facilitating transboundary water cooperation at all levels, the appropriate institutional arrangements must be in place by which to deepen knowledge and understanding of the Convention and its inherent rules, principles and aspirations. Evidence of the need and value of such arrangements can be seen in the case of the UNECE Water Convention. Through its meeting of the parties, secretariat, work programmes, implementation projects and so forth, the UNECE Water Convention has played an effective role across Europe and neighbouring regions in supporting implementation of basin and sub-basin arrangements. Exploring synergies between the UNECE Water Convention and the UNWC, therefore, provides considerable promise in ascertaining how ‘multi-basin’ treaty regimes can make a difference at the basin, sub-basin and national levels. In addition to global institutional mechanisms supporting the convention, such discussions should include the role of river basin and regional integration organizations as hubs for coordinating and monitoring the UNWC’s future implementation.

See Part II of this post here.

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