Legal Principles

The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Convention), adopted in 1997 by the UN General

Assembly, is one post-Rio accomplishment that specifically focuses on international transboundary water resources.7 The UN Convention codifies many of the principles deemed essential by the international community for the management of shared water resources, such as equitable and reasonable utilization of waters with specific attention to vital human needs; protection of the aquatic environment; and the promotion of cooperative management mechanisms. The document also incorporates provisions concerning data and information exchange and mechanisms for conflict resolution. Once ratified, the UN Convention will provide a legally binding framework to its signatories for managing international watercourses.

However, the UN's approval of the Convention does not entirely resolve many legal questions concerning the management of internationally shared waters. To date, five years after its adoption by the UN General Assembly, only 14 countries are party to the UN Convention, well below the requisite 35 instruments of ratification, acceptance, accession, or approval needed to bring the Convention into force (United Nations, 2002b).8 Additionally, international law only guides conduct between sovereign nations. Thus, grievances of political units or ethnic groups within nations over the domestic management of international waterways would not be addressed. Another problem, in the words of Biswas in 1999, is that the "vague, broad, and general terms'' incorporated in the UN Convention "can be defined, and in certain cases quantified, in a variety of different ways...'' leading to potentially varied and conflictive interpretations of the principles contained therein. Moreover, there is no practical enforcement mechanism to back up the Convention's guidance. The International Court of Justice, for example, hears cases only with the consent of the parties involved and only on very specific legal points. In its 55-year history, the Court has decided only one case, apart from those related to boundary definitional disputes, pertinent to international waters - that of the Gabcikovo-Nagy-maros Project on the Danube between Hungary and Slovakia in 1997.9 Finally, the Convention only addresses those groundwater bodies that are connected to surface water systems - i.e., unconfined aquifers, yet several nations have already begun to tap into confined groundwater systems, many of which are

7 UN General Assembly document A/RES/51/229 of 8 July 1997.

8 As of January 2006, Finland, Hungary, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Namibia, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Qatar, South Africa, Sweden, and Syria were party to the Convention.

9 The ICJ was established in 1946 with the dissolution of its prede cessor agency, the Permanent Court of International Justice. This earlier body did rule on four international water disputes during its existence from 1922-1946.

shared across international boundaries. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the process of ratification is moving extremely slowly, the Convention's common acceptance, and the fact that the International Court of Justice referred to it in its decision on the 1997 case on the Gabcikovo Dam, gives the Convention increasing standing as an instrument of customary law.

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