Wednesday, April 21, 2010

News from the ICJ: the Argentina vs Uruguay pulp mills case


On 20 April 2010, the International Court of Justice has rendered judgement in the case concerning pulp mills on the River Uruguay between Argentina and Uruguay. After a very quick initial reading, this post attempts to provide a crude preliminary picture of the salient legal points. More will follow in a latter post with respect to substantive analysis, but many aspects of this decision already appear interesting in the context of a reflection on the interplay between international water law and national legal regimes.

As for the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros case, this most recent decision from the IJC can be expected to have a noticeable impact in international water law doctrine. Lined-up against each other in the Uruguay case were such heavy weights as Sands, Boyle McCaffrey and Boisson de Chazournes (see §§167-168 for the opinion of the Court on that).

The River is governed by a specific regime established through a Statute from 1975 (see §§26-27).

Interestingly for the wider relevance of the case to general international water law, article 1 of the 1975 Statute states that the parties adopted it «in order to establish the joint machinery necessary for the optimum and rational utilization of the River Uruguay, in strict observance of the rights and obligations arising from treaties and other international agreements in force for each of the parties». (emphasis added)

The ICJ defines the scope of its jurisdiction at §§48-66. Argentina maintains that referral clauses contained in the Statute make it possible to incorporate and apply obligations arising from other treaties and international agreements binding on the Parties. To this end, Argentina refers to the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The ICJ concludes that:

«The fact that Article 1 does not require that the “treaties and other international agreements” should be in force between the two parties thus clearly indicates that the 1975 Statute takes account of the prior commitments of each of the parties which have a bearing on it.


(T)he various multilateral conventions relied on by Argentina are not, as such, incorporated in the 1975 Statute. For that reason, they do not fall within the scope of the compromissory clause and therefore the Court has no jurisdiction to rule whether Uruguay has complied with its obligations thereunder.


The Parties nevertheless are in agreement that the 1975 Statute is to be interpreted in accordance with rules of customary international law on treaty interpretation, as codified in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The Court has had recourse to these rules when it has had to interpret the provisions of treaties and international agreements concluded before the entry into force of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in 1980.


In the interpretation of the 1975 Statute, taking account of relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the Parties, whether these are rules of general international law or contained in multilateral conventions to which the two States are parties, nevertheless has no bearing on the scope of the jurisdiction conferred on the Court under Article 60 of the 1975 Statute, which remains confined to disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the Statute.

The ICJ finds that Uruguay has breached its procedural obligations under the 1975 Statute, and concludes that declaration by the Court of this breach constitutes appropriate satisfaction. In respect to the differentiation between procedural and substantive obligations, §§75-79 are particularly interesting. The ICJ states:

«78.(...) nowhere does the 1975 Statute indicate that a party may fulfil its substantive obligations by complying solely with its procedural obligations, nor that a breach of procedural obligations automatically entails the breach of substantive ones. Likewise, the fact that the parties have complied with their substantive obligations does not mean that they are deemed to have complied ipso facto with their procedural obligations, or are excused from doing so. Moreover, the link between these two categories of obligations can also be broken, in fact, when a party which has not complied with its procedural obligations subsequently abandons the implementation of its planned activity.

79. The Court considers, as a result of the above, that there is indeed a functional link, in regard to prevention, between the two categories of obligations laid down by the 1975 Statute, but that link does not prevent the States parties from being required to answer for those obligations separately, according to their specific content, and to assume, if necessary, the responsibility resulting from the breach of them, according to the circumstances.

On whether Uruguay has breached its substantive obligation to contribute to the optimum and rational utilization of the River as per article 1 of the Statute, the IJC states:

«175. The Court considers that the attainment of optimum and rational utilization requires a balance between the Parties’ rights and needs to use the river for economic and commercial activities on the one hand, and the obligation to protect it from any damage to the environment that may be caused by such activities, on the other. The need for this balance is reflected in various provisions of the 1975 Statute establishing rights and obligations for the Parties, such as Articles 27, 36, and 41.


177. Regarding Article 27, it is the view of the Court that its formulation reflects not only the need to reconcile the varied interests of riparian States in a transboundary context and in particular in the use of a shared natural resource, but also the need to strike a balance between the use of the waters and the protection of the river consistent with the objective of sustainable development.


The Court wishes to add that such utilization could not be considered to be equitable and reasonable if the interests of the other riparian State in the shared resource and the environmental protection of the latter were not taken into account. Consequently, it is the opinion of the Court that Article 27 embodies this interconnectedness between equitable and reasonable utilization of a shared resource and the balance between economic development and environmental protection that is the essence of sustainable development.


183. It is recalled that Article 36 provides that “[t]he parties shall co-ordinate, through the Commission, the necessary measures to avoid any change in the ecological balance and to control pests and other harmful factors in the river and the areas affected by it”.

184. It is the opinion of the Court that compliance with this obligation cannot be expected to come through the individual action of either Party, acting on its own. Its implementation requires co-ordination through the Commission. It reflects the common interest dimension of the 1975 Statute and expresses one of the purposes for the establishment of the joint machinery which is to co-ordinate the actions and measures taken by the Parties for the sustainable management and environmental protection of the river.


187. The Court considers that the obligation laid down in Article 36 is addressed to both Parties and prescribes the specific conduct of co-ordinating the necessary measures through the Commission to avoid changes to the ecological balance. An obligation to adopt regulatory or administrative measures either individually or jointly and to enforce them is an obligation of conduct. Both Parties are therefore called upon, under Article 36, to exercise due diligence in acting through the Commission for the necessary measures to preserve the ecological balance of the river.

188. This vigilance and prevention is all the more important in the preservation of the ecological balance, since the negative impact of human activities on the waters of the river may affect other components of the ecosystem of the watercourse such as its flora, fauna, and soil. The obligation to co-ordinate, through the Commission, the adoption of the necessary measures, as well as their enforcement and observance, assumes, in this context, a central role in the overall system of protection of the River Uruguay established by the 1975 Statute. It is therefore of crucial importance that the Parties respect this obligation.

189. In light of the above, the Court is of the view that Argentina has not convincingly demonstrated that Uruguay has refused to engage in such co-ordination as envisaged by Article 36, in breach of that provision.


190. Article 41 provides that:
“Without prejudice to the functions assigned to the Commission in this respect, the parties undertake:
(a) to protect and preserve the aquatic environment and, in particular, to prevent its pollution, by prescribing appropriate rules and [adopting appropriate] measures in accordance with applicable international agreements and in keeping, where relevant, with the guidelines and recommendations of international technical bodies;
(b) not to reduce in their respective legal systems:
1. the technical requirements in force for preventing water pollution, and
2. the severity of the penalties established for violations;
(c) to inform one another of any rules which they plan to prescribe with regard to water pollution in order to establish equivalent rules in their respective legal systems.”


195. In view of the central role of this provision in the dispute between the Parties in the present case and their profound differences as to its interpretation and application, the Court will make a few remarks of a general character on the normative content of Article 41 before addressing the specific arguments of the Parties. First, in the view of the Court, Article 41 makes a clear distinction between regulatory functions entrusted to CARU under the 1975 Statute, which are dealt with in Article 56 of the Statute, and the obligation it imposes on the Parties to adopt rules and measures individually to “protect and preserve the aquatic environment and, in particular, to prevent its pollution”. Thus, the obligation assumed by the Parties under Article 41, which is distinct from those under Articles 36 and 56 of the 1975 Statute, is to adopt appropriate rules and measures within the framework of their respective domestic legal systems to protect and preserve the aquatic environment and to prevent pollution.


196. Secondly, it is the opinion of the Court that a simple reading of the text of Article 41 indicates that it is the rules and measures that are to be prescribed by the Parties in their respective legal systems which must be “in accordance with applicable international agreements” and “in keeping, where relevant, with the guidelines and recommendations of international technical bodies”.

197. Thirdly, the obligation to “preserve the aquatic environment, and in particular to prevent pollution by prescribing appropriate rules and measures” is an obligation to act with due diligence in respect of all activities which take place under the jurisdiction and control of each party. It is an obligation which entails not only the adoption of appropriate rules and measures, but also a certain level of vigilance in their enforcement and the exercise of administrative control applicable to public and private operators, such as the monitoring of activities undertaken by such operators, to safeguard the rights of the other party. The responsibility of a party to the 1975 Statute would therefore be engaged if it was shown that it had failed to act diligently and thus take all appropriate measures to enforce its relevant regulations on a public or private operator under its jurisdiction.


262. The Court is of the opinion that as part of their obligation to preserve the aquatic environment, the Parties have a duty to protect the fauna and flora of the river. The rules and measures which they have to adopt under Article 41 should also reflect their international undertakings in respect of biodiversity and habitat protection, in addition to the other standards on water quality and discharges of effluent. The Court has not, however, found sufficient evidence to conclude that Uruguay breached its obligation to preserve the aquatic environment including the protection of its fauna and flora.» (emphasis added)

The IJC concludes Uruguay has not breached its substantive obligations under the 1975 Statute of the River Uruguay.

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