AIDA chair S. Burchi reports on The Conference on “Freshwater and international law: the multiple challenges” (Geneva, 7-9 July 2011)

The Conference on “Freshwater and international law: the multiple challenges” was convened by the University of Geneva Law Faculty’s Platform for International Water Law in Geneva, Switzerland, 7-9 July 2011. The Conference drew 160 registered participants, and a most respectable speakers’ list featuring, among others and in order of chronology of presentations, AIDA members L. del Castillo, C. Leb, R. Paisley, D. Grey, S. McCaffrey, A. Tanzi, O. McIntyre, and S. Salman. Reporting AIDA chair S. Burchi was also in attendance, at the invitation of the Conference organizers. The programme featured two half-day sessions, and one full-day session (8 July). The first half-day was given over to a review of current issues in transboundary water resources, with presentations illustrating and assessing ongoing cooperation between France and Switzerland in the Genevese Aquifer, the difficult history of cooperation between India and Pakistan on the Indus River, and the history and the future of cooperation between Canada and the United States on the Columbia River, by Prof. R. Paisley, set against the backdrop of the 1964 agreement due to expire in 2024, but with the two countries due to give at least ten years’ prior notice, by 2014, if either wants to terminate it. The recent Guaranì Aquifer agreement concluded in 2010 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay was illustrated by L. del Castillo. The post-2000 developments in the Senegal River Basin cooperative framework were illustrated next, with particular reference to the current emphasis on environmental protection and sustainable development of the basin water resources, on public participation, and on the promotion of the two available global United Nations instruments carrying the law of international freshwaters, i.e., the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, and the 2008 Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. A representative of the Swiss Agency for International Cooperation illustrated the Agency’s Water Diplomacy Programme ongoing in nine selected transboundary rivers in the world, with a final presentation by C. Leb dwelling on the issue of secession and succession in transboundary river basins, with particular reference to the case of the new state of South Sudan as regards the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework in place. In this reporter’s view, some of the presentations illustrated aptly the different approach taken by countries with regard to the issue of sovereignty, which is one of the key challenges of contemporary international water law. It appears that the issue was ignored – and played no role – in the Franco-Swiss arrangements for the Genevese Aquifer, while it was paramount in the shaping of the Guaranì Aquifer agreement. The Friday morning’s session featured a compelling presentation by D. Grey, in which he sought to distill from his vast experience pointers for the future direction of transboundary cooperation, including in particular the need to balance the principle of state sovereignty with the global dimension water is assuming, also in the face of climate change and the enormous challenges the latter brings in train. Next, people’s rights in boundary delimitation, and the water rights of indigenous peoples and communities were addressed, the latter mostly from a human rights perspective. By the speaker’s own admission, however, the relevance of, in particular, the latter topic to international water law remains to be explored. In the afternoon session, the codification of international legal norms, in particular by the UN International Law Commission, was reviewed and its effectiveness assessed by Prof. McCaffrey. Prof. Tanzi dwelled upon, in particular, the existing regional legal and institutional framework for cooperation in transboundary waters in place under the auspices of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), and illustrated the work underway towards the articulation of a mechanism for implementation and compliance under such framework. The emerging centrality of procedural obligations, relative to substantive ones, in transboundary cooperation, and the centrality of transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment procedures in particular, were highlighted by Prof. McIntyre in his presentation. The other presentations addressed benefit-sharing in the river basin context, the hydrology of climate change, and WTO and the trade in natural resources, including water. On the third and last day, the programme focused on the prevention and settlement of water-related disputes. The two only water-related disputes of record addressed by the International Court of Justice, i.e., the Nabcikovo-Nagymaros case on the Danube River, and the Pulp Mills case on the Uruguay River, were the target of one of the three presentations featured on the programme. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, this reporter could not sit through the last presentation on the programme, delivered by S. Salman, who dwelled upon mediation as a means of dispute prevention and resolution.

In this reporter’s assessment, the Conference was a great success. The scientific programme was rich, relevant and articulate, and a complement of most distinguished and qualified speakers had been lined up by the organizers. The quality of the audience in attendance was also remarkable, with all sessions being invariably followed by question-and-answer periods in which several members of the public took an active part.