Development of International Water Law and the UN Watercourse Convention

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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 (UN 1997a). It was drafted to articulate and codify the prevailing state practice and opinio juris – an action taken out of a sense of legal rather than moral obligation – in the area of international water law. It was designed to serve as a framework for more specific bilateral and regional agreements relating to the use, management and preservation of transboundary water resources. It was also designed to help prevent and resolve conflicts over international water resources, and to promote sustainable development and the protection of global water supplies.

The Convention was adopted by a vote of 103 for and three against, with 27 abstentions and 33 members absent (UN 1997b; see figure 1 for a more complete breakdown of the vote). Although the actual number of votes against the Convention was small, the numbers belie a voting pattern that manifests the complexity of the subject matter, as well as the fragility of the coalition favouring the Convention. Many upper riparian states, for example, voted against passage of the Convention or abstained from the vote, while lower riparian states typically supported its adoption. Many states that abstained or voted against the text contended that the document was not ready for a vote, and noted the lack of consensus on several key provisions, including those governing dispute settlement. Others, both upper and lower riparian states, argued that there was a lack of balance in the Convention’s provisions between the rights and obligations of upstream and downstream riparian states (UN 1997b). By 20 May 2000, the end of the signature period, only eight countries had ratified and another ten had signed the document1 (see figure 2). Clearly, the debate surrounding the UN Convention is a function of the competing interests of states and is political in nature. Especially telling is the fact that it took more than 25 years of continuous work, 13 reports and five special rapporteurs to finalise the text.

This chapter examines the evolution of the UN Convention and analyses the vote on the text of the document in the UN General A s s e m b l y. It begins with a brief review of the development of international water law leading up to the creation of the Convention, and follows with an analysis of the diverging interests that, nevertheless, resulted in the adoption of the Convention. Finally, an assessment is presented of the voting and ratification patterns of the Convention, as well as a review of the document’s present status.

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African Water Issues Research Unit, Centre for International Political Studies, University of Pretoria


Pretoria, South Africa

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Hydropolitics in the Developing World: A Southern African Perspective

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