The following post by Dr. Salman M.A. Salman and Professor Gabriel Eckstein offers concluding remarks about the series related to the entering into force of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention (see links to all of the essays here). Dr. Salman is an academic researcher and consultant on water law and policy, and Editor-in-Chief of Brill Research Perspectives, International Water Law. Until 2009, Dr. Salman served as Lead Council and Water Law Adviser for the World Bank. He can be reached at SalmanMASalman [at] gmail.com. Professor Eckstein is a member of the law faculty at Texas A&M University, directs the International Water Law Project, and edits the International Water Law Project Blog. He can be reached at gabriel [at] internationalwaterlaw.org or gabrieleckstein [at] law.tamu.edu.
The preceding essays discussing and analyzing various perspectives on and interpretations of the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention convey different, and sometimes conflicting, views and perceptions about the various principles set forth in the Convention. Indeed, many of these differences arose in the very early years of the work of the UN International Law Commission (UNILC) on the draft Convention, which began in 1971, and continued throughout to its conclusion in 1994. These differences also dominated the two meetings of the UN Sixth Committee convened as a Working Group of the Whole in 1996 and 1997, as well as the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meeting on May 21, 1997, which finalized and approved the Convention. Thus, the journey of the Convention over the past forty-four years has been quite turbulent and contentious.
As evident in the perspectives from Southern Africa and the Nile Basin, one of the most contentious debates surrounds the relationship between the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and the obligation against causing significant harm between upper and lower riparians. As evidenced in the essays, this issue remains a focal area of debate notwithstanding the efforts made to clarify the issue during the Sixth Committee and UNGA meetings, and through the interpretations and elaboration of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros and the Pulp Mills cases. A number of lower riparians countries still view the Convention as biased in favor of upper riparians because it subordinates the obligation against causing harm to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. Conversely, many upper riparians still believe that the Convention favors lower riparians because of its separate mention of the obligation against causing harm. It is noteworthy that the three countries that voted against the Convention (Burundi, China and Turkey), and many of those that abstained, such as Bolivia, Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania, are largely upper riparian states. On the other hand, a number of lower riparians, such as Egypt and Pakistan, and those with mixed upper and lower riparian geographies including France and Peru, also abstained, concerned that the Convention favors upstream riparians because it subordinates the no harm rule to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. Of all these countries, only France is now a party to the Convention.
Although the SADC countries amended their Protocol on Shared Watercourses in 2000 to make it consistent with the Convention, they tried to maintain parity between the two principles by subjecting each to the other, thus keeping the actual relationship in abeyance and unresolved. The same concerns seem to be a main reason for the South Asia countries’ reluctance to join the Convention.
It is true that the Convention does indeed subordinate the obligation against causing harm to the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization. Yet, this should in no way be taken to indicate a bias in favor of upper riparians. The principle grants each riparian a fair share for utilization, based, at least theoretically, on some objective and widely accepted principles dating back to the Helsinki Rules of 1966. The ICJ, in addition to buttressing and elaborating the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization, confirmed in the Gabcikovo case, the perfect equality of all riparian states in the uses of the watercourse, and the exclusion of any preferential privilege of one riparian state in relation to the others. The ICJ noted that modern development of international law has strengthened this principle for non-navigational uses of international watercourses “as evidenced by the adoption of the Convention of 21 May 1997 on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses by the United Nations General Assembly.” The ICJ reconfirmed this elaboration in 2010 in the Pulp Mills case.
The interaction of the Convention with existing agreements seem to be another matter raising the concerns of some states, as noted in the perspectives from South America, North America, Southern Africa, and to some extent Central Asia. Article 3 of the Convention asserts that it does not affect the rights or obligations of watercourse states arising from agreements already in force. Nonetheless, it asks the parties to consider, where necessary, harmonizing such agreements with the basic principles of the Convention. Some riparian states with existing bilateral or regional agreements appear to believe that the harmonization formulation causes those prior agreements to be weakened, if not disregarded. Conversely, riparian states left out of existing local and regional agreements criticize the Convention for not subjecting existing agreements to the Convention’s provisions and failing to mandate inclusion of all riparians in such agreements. Both perspectives misconstrue the Convention. A close reading reveals that the Convention recognizes both the validity of existing agreements as well as the rights of riparian states in a shared watercourse that are not parties to such local and regional agreements. This is the interpretation described in the essay discussing the European perspective, which also acknowledges the complementary nature of a general framework instrument, like the Convention, and more specific bilateral and regional agreements.
A third contentious issue, raised most prominently in the essays presenting the Chinese and South Asian perspectives and suggested in the South American perspective, relates to the Convention’s dispute settlement provisions. While some states, like Pakistan, believe that the provisions are too weak because they do not mandate a binding mechanism, other states, such as China, interpret the fact-finding procedures as compulsory and argue that such an approach interferes with their sovereign right to select their own approach to dispute settlement. Indeed, Article 33 of the Convention offers parties a number of methods for settling disputes. However, the only obligatory process set forth is impartial fact-finding and a requirement to consider the fact-finding report in good faith. Thus, while the Convention provides a basic mechanism for ascertaining the facts of a dispute, it leaves the precise method for resolving disputes to the parties. Given that the Convention is a framework treaty, this is clearly a reasonable approach incorporating both points of views.
A fourth concern regards the Convention’s relevance to groundwater resources. As explained in the essays providing the South Asian and North American perspectives, some countries like Mexico and Pakistan question whether the Convention’s regime should extend to subsurface waters. The unease appears based, in part, on inadequate national information related to border-region aquifers and the extent to which the Convention could fully address groundwater challenges, which often are distinct from those affecting surface waters. The Convention, however, provides mechanisms for developing knowledge about hydraulically related water resources, including obligations to cooperate (Art. 8) and share information (Art. 9), and even to generate new knowledge (Art. 9). Furthermore, it would be illogical to impose the Convention’s regime to water resources whose relations to a transboundary watercourse are still unclear. Nevertheless, as considered in the perspective on the Convention’s implications for groundwater resources, with the advent of the Draft Articles on Transboundary Aquifers, which contain a number of noteworthy groundwater-specific provisions, countries may be justified in raising questions regarding how the Convention addresses subsurface water resources. However, the issue should be couched more in terms of a concern rather than a contentious matter preventing ratification of the Convention.
A New Chapter of International Cooperation
Notwithstanding the regional and subject-specific challenges and concerns, there is a clear consensus that transboundary waters should be managed on the basis of cooperation and the equality of all riparians in the use of shared watercourses. Beyond these basic international law tenets, there are a number of advantages that could accrue to nations that ratify the Convention. Foremost is the comfort and security of knowing that riparian neighbors operate from the same foundational norms.
For example, under the Convention, all riparians – regardless of whether upstream or downstream – must abide by the instrument’s detailed notification procedures before embarking on measures that may affect an international watercourse. The Convention does not bestow a veto right in any riparian, but rather requires interaction and communication in conformity with fundamental norms of international law. As a result, riaprians are prevented from taking unilateral action and encouraged to cooperate through various means, including notification.
The notification procedures can also benefit states to the extent that they offer greater certainty, security and comfort to the various international, regional, and national financial institutions about financing projects affecting international watercourses. Agencies such as regional development banks and state development agencies, which typically lack such procedures, now have a global instrument on which to rely on for project notification and processing.
Ultimately, as suggested in Dr. McCaffrey’s essay, the Convention’s most significant value lies in its status as an authoritative statement of customary international water law and a framework under which more specific bilateral and regional agreements can be established and interpreted. In fact, the UNGA itself used the term “codification” when it referred the task of preparing the draft convention to its legal arm, the UNILC.
Hence, entry into force of the Convention represents a broadening commitment by the international community to manage and utilize transboundary freshwater resources through peaceful and cooperative means. Entry into force is also likely to have a “snow-ball” effect of creating an incentive for other states to join, as happened with other treaties, because few states would want to be left out.
Frontier freshwater resources have long been one of the few transboundary natural resources devoid of a global framework treaty. With the UN Watercourses Convention, freshwater resources no longer carry that distinction. Indeed, a new chapter of international cooperation over these resources has emerged.