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Richard Paisley and Taylor Henshaw: The 1997 UN Watercourses Convention from a North American Perspective

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

The following post by Richard Paisley and Taylor Henshaw is the tenth and final essay in the series related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Messrs. Paisley and Henshaw are with the Global Transboundary International Waters Governance Initiative at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, which Mr. Paisley directs. Mr. Paisley can be reached at: rpaisley [at] internationalwatersgovernance.com.

Introduction

The nations of North America—Canada, Mexico and the United States (USA)—share a significant number of international drainage basins and transboundary aquifers, comprising 16% of the world’s transboundary river basins. The three countries have entered into various bilateral agreements with their neighbors for the management and allocation of their transboundary waters. However, while each voted in favor of the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC) when it came before the UN General Assembly, none of them has ratified the instrument. The objective of this essay is to critically consider the absence of these three nations from the roll of the UNWC and to assess whether ratifying and implementing the UNWC would be in the individual and collective best interest of all three countries.

International Freshwater Drainage Basins of North America. Source: UN Watercourses Convention Online Users Guide

Perceptions

The three nations appear to be in no great rush to ratify and implement the UNWC. This may be due to a perception that their international drainage basins are sufficiently managed without the UNWC: long-standing bilateral institutions have been established to deal with various aspects of the conservation and management of international drainage basins in North America.

Prominent among these mechanisms are the International Joint Commission (IJC) between Canada and the USA, and the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) between Mexico and the USA. The history and practice of the IJC and the IBWC provide a rich body of work to review that falls beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to mention some of the challenges the two commissions face, such as: managing significant risks to water quality and quantity; the linking of border environments to binational trade and associated agreements; new stresses on public health and national economies; changes due to population growth and industrialization; greater demands on shared resources; increasing emphasis on public and indigenous peoples participation in decision-making; greater value placed on non-traditional water uses, such as “in stream” flows; and the imperative to establish ecosystem and active adaptive management approaches to resource management.

In addition, both institutions have experienced recent changes to their constituencies with the increasing influence of environmentalists and economic, social justice, and sustainable development advocates. As a result, ratification and implementation of the UNWC could help make both the IJC and the IBWC more relevant by increasing the focus on, and energy devoted to, the more sustainable conservation and management of transboundary waters and related resources in all three countries.

Substantive Objections

Whether and the extent to which Canada, Mexico and the USA have substantive objections to the UNWC is not well known. This may be because such objections are masked by the fact that all three countries were among, not just the 103 countries who voted in favor of the UNWC, but also the 38 countries to officially sponsor the UNWC.

On reflection, various substantive reasons may exist to explain why all three countries are not overly anxious to ratify and implement the UNWC. Mexico provides a good example. On the one hand, Mexico probably favors the UNWC, in part, because the Convention provides a basis for cooperating over measures to prevent, reduce and control pollution, including from the USA, which is an issue of great sensitivity to Mexicans. On the other hand, groundwater is tremendously important for Mexico where many believe that the conservation and management of shared transboundary aquifers necessitates a different international legal regime to that presented in the UNWC. More specifically, Mexico could be disinclined to ratify and implement the UNWC until more clarity is provided regarding the relationship between the UNWC and the emerging Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. According to Stephen McCaffrey, such clarity, regrettably, may be a long way off and:

will crucially depend on eliminating both the overlap between the draft and the UN Convention in terms of the physical subject matter they regulate, and the notion of “sovereignty” over shared groundwater, which should have no place in any set of rules governing the use, protection, and management of shared freshwater resources.

Constitutional Politics

At the political level, the ratification and implementation of international treaties has become an increasingly challenging undertaking in all three countries.

In Canada, the negotiation, signing and ratification of international treaties is controlled by the executive branch of the federal government. However, many international treaties, such as the UNWC, deal with matters that fall under the provincial sphere of legislative jurisdiction pursuant to the division of powers in Canada between the federal government, the provincial governments and First Nations (sections 91, 92, 92A and 35 of the Canadian Constitution).  Also, according to Professor Emeritus of Economics and Forestry at the University of British Columbia, Peter Pearse:

A recurrent question in discussions about water management in Canada is “What is the role of the federal government?”  A stranger to these discussions might think, naively, that this is simply a constitutional question.  But even a good constitutional lawyer can not give a crisp answer.  To some extent the question is a political one – “What does the federal government think its role is, at the moment?”  This changes.

As a practical matter this means that ratification and implementation of the UNWC in Canada would likely trigger challenging and hard-nosed fiscal and other negotiations among the federal, provincial and First Nations levels of government. An analogous situation occurred when Canada was asked to ratify and implement the Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context.

In the USA, the legal situation regarding international treaties is somewhat different, but possibly even more challenging. Under United States constitutional law, an international “treaty” is an agreement that has received the “advice and consent” of two-thirds of the United States Senate and has been ratified by the President (see here). As a practical matter, given the increasing political polarization within the United States Senate, obtaining the consent of two thirds of Senate members for any multilateral treaty, including the UNWC, would be exceedingly challenging.

Mexico is much closer to Canada constitutionally than to the USA as Mexico constitutionally allocates separate and exclusive spheres of authority to the states/provinces and the federal government. International treaties must conform to the Mexican Constitution in order to be valid. However, many international treaties address topics that in Mexico fall within the exclusive authority of the states/provinces. Seemingly, in practical terms this means that Mexico may need to enact domestic legislation to transform international treaty obligations into enforceable domestic law, which could be both time consuming and expensive.

Champions

Another reason why the UNWC has not yet been ratified and implemented in Canada, Mexico and the USA is the paucity of champions at the political level in all three countries. This resonates with Nicolo Machiavelli’s observation:

there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Justifying the UNWC in North America

Despite the apparent obstacles noted above, there are at least three compelling reasons why Canada, Mexico and the USA should immediately ratify and implement the UNWC. First, ratification and implementation will send a strong and important message to each other, and to the world community, generally, that sovereign states have important rights and responsibilities when it comes to transboundary freshwater resources.

Second, the fact that Canada and the USA are variously both upstream and downstream of each other and that the USA is upstream of Mexico, will particularly and importantly help dispel any lingering misperception that the UNWC may be biased in favour of downstream or upstream states.

Third, Canadian, Mexican and American support for the Convention could not be more timely given how the world community is currently struggling with the harsh realities of climate change and water scarcity.

Ratifying and implementing the UNWC in North America would also demonstrate a wider acceptance of practice under the Convention as representing customary international law. In turn this could place the UNWC higher on various political agendas and could help lead to a more stable framework for transboundary water cooperation globally.