New Publication Questions the Status of the UN Watercourses Convention

This essay is written by Gabriel Eckstein, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, director of the TAMU Law Program in Energy, Environmental, and Natural Resources Systems, and director of the International Water Law Project. He can be reached at gabrieleckstein [at] law.tamu.edu.

When the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 21 May 1997, it was heralded as a major milestone in the evolution of international water law.  In particular, the fact that the Convention was adopted by a significant margin – 103 in favor, three against, and 27 abstentions (UNGA Press Release GA/9248) – indicated broad and robust support for what was then the only global instrument for the management of international watercourses. 

The permanent representative of Mexico to the UN at the time, Ambassador Manuel Tello, asserted that the Watercourses Convention “undoubtedly marks an important step in the progressive development and codification of international law” (U.N. GAOR, 1997, p. 2).  Even China, one of the three members who ultimately opposed the Convention, stated that they believed “the draft articles [on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses] have laid a fairly good foundation for the formulation of an international convention (U.N. GAOR, 1997, p. 6).

Despite the hopes and promises of the Convention, nearly fifty years after its initial instigation at the United Nations, more than 20 years following its adoption by the UNGA, and over 5 years after it came into force (17 August 2014), enthusiasm for that instrument appears to have waned.  Although the Convention is in force for the states that have ratified it, it only attained that status following seventeen years of relatively slow progress and now has only 36 ratifying parties (Status of the Watercourses Convention).  Moreover, despite continued encouragement by various non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, few additional states seems poised to accede to the agreement.

A new article – The Status of the UN Watercourses Convention: Does it Still Hold Water?, published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development – examines the extent of support that nations have shown the Watercourses Convention, and assess its continued sustainability.  The article does not reject the normative value of the Convention or its relevance for various nations in their efforts to engage with their neighbors over transboundary freshwater resources.  Rather, the article seeks to ascertain why relatively so few nations have ratified the instrument.

With this in mind, the article examines the support provided the Convention’s drafted norms and procedures during its development, at its historic appearance on the global stage during the 1997 vote at the UNGA, and subsequently as nations ratified the instrument and eventually brought it into force.  It also seeks to ascertain patterns in the 1997 vote and subsequent ratifications, and thereby uncover some of the possible reasons for the diminishing appeal of the instrument.  Charts and tables displaying characteristics of the votes, ratifications, riparian status, geography, and other factors are provided to support the analytical objective.

Finally, the article considers other externalities that may have negatively influenced the level of interest in the Convention that has been offered by nations.  Among others, these include divergent interpretations and misunderstanding among the international community of the norms codified in the instrument, and competition from the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes.

The article – The Status of the UN Watercourses Convention: Does it Still Hold Water? – is published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is available here.

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