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Middle East

Syria Insta-Symposium: Jennifer Trahan-The Legality of a U.S. Strike on Syria

by Jennifer Trahan

[Jennifer Trahan is an Associate Clinical Professor, NYU Center for Global Affairs, chair of the American Branch of the International Law Association International Criminal Court Committee, and member of the American Bar Association 2010 ICC Task Force]

As the U.S. prepares, with or without coalition partners, for a potential military strike against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria , it is important to consider the legality of such a strike as a matter of domestic and international law.  At the international level, with a U.N. Security Council resolution, such action would be clearly legal.  Without such a resolution, the law is in somewhat of a grey area, but the legality is supportable.

The “responsibility to protect” doctrine, developed in recent years, makes clear that the international communitydoes have a responsibility to protect a people in peril from grave atrocity crimes.  Recent formulations of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine suggest that large scale war crimes and/or crimes against humanity — acknowledge to have occurred in Syria — are such atrocity crimes.

While the clearest path to utilizing forceful intervention under the “responsibility to protect” framework is through Security Council authorization (as happened in the case of Libya ), tragedies such as genocides in Rwandan and Darfur dramatically pose the question:  what should the world do when the votes are not there at the Security Council level?  Should one simply allow massive humanitarian tragedies to be inflicted by a regime on its own people absent a Security Council resolution?  Does one really need to wait for recalcitrant China and Russia (permanent members of the Security Council possessing veto power) to do the right thing?

A legitimate argument exists that even when the Security Council does not authorize humanitarian intervention, it is arguably still permissible.  As formulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, while the decision to intervene should be made by the Security Council, if the Council “fails to discharge its responsibility to protect in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, concerned states may not rule out other means to meet the gravity and urgency of that situation.”

Clearly, intervention through a coalition of partners, such as a NATO coalition (as occurred with Kosovo) lends greater legitimacy (although even that is technically not sufficient under a strict reading of the U.N. Charter).  But when a broad coalition or regional actor is unavailable, does that mean that countries must stand by and let mass atrocities, such as the use of chemical weapons (a necessarily indiscriminate weapon), occur?  The answer is arguably no.

While the U.N. Charter only clearly permits intervention in two scenarios:  U.N. Security Council authorized action and article 51 individual or collective self-defense, the Charter also contains a clear commitment to human rights.  Committing mass atrocity crimes is about the clearest violation of human rights that one can get.  Thus, while humanitarian intervention is not clearly legal under the U.N. Charter, it is not clearly illegal either.  We are in a grey area where the demands of morality and those of international law are not yet fully harmonized in a clear manner.  Should thousands more die while we wait for international law (which can take decades to form) to catch up to where it should be?

We might have not reached this point had Assad regime members (as well as others actors in Syria ) felt much sooner that the international community was scrutinizing their actions.  This could have happened through a Security Council referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.  Unfortunately, that has not happened, and any chance to deter crimes through a referral has been squandered.

While the U.S. contemplates a strike, important criteria for consideration include those formulated by the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.  Namely, last resort:  “Has every non-military option for meeting the threat in question been explored . . . ?”  Proportional means:  “Are the scale, duration and intensity of the proposed military action the minimum necessary to meet the threat in question”? Balance of consequences:  “Is there a reasonable chance of the military action being successful in meeting the threat in question, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction?”

The Administration is facing a difficult choice as the U.S. contemplates moving ahead, hopefully along with coalition partners such as France .  Yet, a flexible reading of international law does not demand that countries stand impotent in the face of over 100,000 fatalities and the use of chemical weapons.

Syria Insta-Symposium

by Jessica Dorsey

We have invited several academic luminaries to post here at Opinio Juris over the next few days about the ongoing situation in Syria. We also are going to follow in our own footsteps from our Kiobel symposium, by inviting young academics and practitioners to submit guests posts for possible publication.

We can’t guarantee we will publish every post submitted, but we would love to broaden the discussion to include new and emerging voices. So if you want to write a guest post for Opinio Juris about Syria of approximately 500 to 1000 words, please do so in the next couple days and send it to me and An Hertogen at opiniojurisblog [at] gmail [dot] com. Our editorial team will review the posts and publish as many as we deem appropriate.

Not Even the Brits Can Make the Case Bombing Syria Is Lawful

by Deborah Pearlstein

Good thing nothing much happened while I was away on summer vacation… So as I wrote here last spring, there’s no clear basis under international law for a U.S. use of force in Syria – no UN Security Council resolution, and no apparent claim at this stage that the United States is acting in self-defense. The only theory of legality in play seems to be the one put forward by the British government, right before Parliament voted to reject the use of force in Syria. Namely, that force may be justified as part of an emergent customary norm permitting humanitarian intervention (see, e.g., NATO intervention in Kosovo).

The statement from the UK Prime Minister’s Office says a state may take “exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided” a set of conditions hold. Those conditions: (1) “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;” (2) it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;” (3) the force used is “necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need…”

But it just can’t support U.S. action here. Here’s why.
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RIP, The Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention?

by Julian Ku

It might be premature to declare the death of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention under international law, but there is no doubt that doctrine suffered a massive blow when the British Parliament voted against a preliminary motion in favor of military strikes on Syria.  To be sure, humanitarian intervention was not directly before the Parliament, but the UK government’s international law justification for the Syria strikes without UN Security Council authorization was almost wholly based on a version of the humanitarian intervention doctrine.  And since the UK government’s motion would have only supported strikes after a report from UN inspectors confirming the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, I don’t think doubts about the use of the weapons were the top reason the motion failed.

More likely, the MPs voted against the motion on the theory that even if the Syrian government’s responsibility for the use of chemical weapons was established, the UK should not launch strikes.  To be sure, I doubt many MPs voted no just because they didn’t accept the government’s legal justification, but it obviously didn’t gain a majority support.

Since the UK is one of the few states to openly adhere to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, and this vote casts doubt on the UK’s future commitment to this doctrine, I would not be optimistic about the future acceptance of this doctrine by other states.  Of course, there is one state out there that might jump on the humanitarian intervention bandwagon, even at this late hour.  But it has not done so yet.

Could the Security Council Refer Only Assad’s Use of Chemical Weapons?

by Kevin Jon Heller

An interesting discussion recently broke out on twitter about whether the Security Council could refer the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons — and only the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons — to the ICC. Instead of breaking my thoughts into 60 tweets or so, I thought I’d be old-fashioned and write a blog post instead.

The issue raises a number of difficult and important questions. The first is whether such a narrow referral would qualify as a “situation” under Art. 13(b) of the Rome Statute, which provides in relevant part that “[t]he Court may exercise its jurisdiction with respect to a crime referred to in article 5 in accordance with the provisions of this Statute if… (b) A situation in which one or more of such crimes appears to have been committed is referred to the Prosecutor by the Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.” Interestingly, the answer may depend on the theory of interpretation we adopt — an issue that Dapo Akande and I recently debated herehere, and here. Read literally, Art. 13(b)’s “one or more of such crimes” language would seem to permit the Security Council to refer crimes committed only by Syrian government using chemical weapons – the referral would simply have to include at least one crime within the Court’s jurisdiction.

The literal interpretation of Art. 13(b), however, is completely inconsistent with the provision’s drafting history. All of the major scholarly works on Art. 13(b) agree that the drafters did not intend to permit the Security Council to refer crimes committed solely by one side of a conflict. Typical in this regard is Bill Schabas and Sharon Williams’ entry in the definitive Triffterer article-by-article commentary on the Rome Statute:

Indeed, this is why the concept of referral in the Rome Statute relates to “situations” rather than “cases.” The language was adopted specifically to avoid the danger of one-sided referrals, which could undermine the legitimacy of the institution.

Antonio Marchesi makes a similar point in the Triffterer book with regard to, Art. 14, which includes the same “one or more of such crimes” language with regard to State referrals:

Although the proposal that the object of State complaints should be “situations” rather than specific crimes was well-received by the participants in the preparatory process, concern was expressed that the complainant State should not be able to “limit the referral to include crimes committed by one side to a conflict in a situation… or restrict the nationality of those who can be investigated and prosecuted. In other words, “the prosecutor must be free to investigate all persons who may be responsible for crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction in a situation.”

There are, of course, ways to avoid the debate between literal and intended meaning…

What’s So Terrible About Chemical Weapons?

by Kevin Jon Heller

Yes, the title is intended to be provocative. And yes, I think chemical weapons are indeed terrible. But statements like this — offered by John Kerry in thinly-veiled support for using military force against the Syrian government — still give me pause (emphasis mine):

What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.

I don’t get it. Why is the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with chemical weapons unacceptable, but not the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with ordinary weapons? Why should the US be willing to intervene if chemical weapons kill 1,000 civilians, but not if ordinary weapons kill tens of thousands? I’m with Stephen Walt concerning the US’s apparent belief that the Syrian government did not cross the (blurry) red line until it used chemical weapons:

But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad’s forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It’s been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it’s been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It’s not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.

If there was significant reason to believe that the attack near Damascus was merely the tip of the iceberg — that the Syrian government intended to launch a full-scale chemical attack in the near future, one that could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians — I could understand the obsession with chemical weapons. But I have not seen any evidence of that. And in any case, I’m not sure why we are supposed to believe that the Syrian government would not respond to US military intervention by using chemical weapons even more indiscriminately. (As an aside, why is it that dictators are expected to fight to the death in order to avoid being prosecuted by the ICC, but are expected to roll over meekly in the face of US military might?)

It’s also worth noting that US outrage at Syria’s use of chemical weapons is more than a little hypocritical. Just yesterday, FP.com published a blockbuster article detailing — on the basis of declassified CIA documents — the US’s knowing support for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. Apparently it is only unacceptable to use chemical weapons when you’re an enemy of the US; if you’re an ally (as Saddam was at that point), they’re fine.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is this: either the US believes in unilateral humanitarian intervention or it doesn’t. If it does, it should have been willing to use militarily force in Syria long ago, when tens of thousands of civilians were being indiscriminately slaughtered by the Syrian government. If it doesn’t, the fact that civilians are now being indiscriminately slaughtered by the Syrian government through the use of chemical weapons should be irrelevant.

Murder by chemical weapons is terrible. But so is any kind of murder. As Walt says, “[d]ead is dead no matter how it’s done.”

The Legality of a Syrian Military Intervention: Russia, France, and the UK Weigh In

by Julian Ku

It looks like the tragic events surrounding a likely chemical weapons attack in Syria will spark a military intervention by the United States, France, and Britain without the authorization of the U.N. Security Council.  We have already heard President Obama publicly state that international law is a factor in the decisionmaking process in the U.S. and the NYT suggests U.S. officials are looking at Kosovo as a precedent for an intervention.  Now other leading powers are weighing in.  First to the plate, Russia:

“Using force without the approval of the UN Security Council is a very grave violation of international law,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters.

Speaking at a news conference urgently convened just a few hours before, he added that the West was currently moving towards “a very dangerous path, a very slippery path”.

Next into the fray, France, whose foreign minister seems to concede Russia’s point about legality, but then makes a mysterious reference to bypassing the UNSC.

France’s foreign minister said on Monday no decision had been made yet on whether to take military action against Syria, but doing so outside the auspices of the U.N. Security Council would be problematic.

“It is a problem that will be difficult,” Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio.

“International law is defined by the United Nations, but at same time there are countries (on the council) that are blocking (military action)- China and Russia have blocked and would probably block again so it would be a problem…

“In certain circumstances we can bypass it, but international law does exist,” he said without elaborating.

I have no idea what he is talking about in terms of “international law is defined by the United Nations.” I am also wondering what circumstances would allow France to bypass the UN Charter, given that it is defined by the U.N. itself.

It may be that France is following the UK’s lead, as the UK’s foreign minister is also hinting that an attack without UNSC authorization is going to happen.

Mr Hague said diplomatic methods to resolve the civil war in Syria had “failed so far”.

He said the UN Security Council, split over Syria, had not “shouldered its responsibilities”.

The council is made up of 15 members including permanent members China, Russia, France, the US and the UK which have the power to veto any resolution.

But any action could be taken “without complete unity on the UN Security Council”, he said.

He said a response could be “based on great humanitarian need and distress” and “in accordance with international law”.

It sounds like the UK and France are both going to need to come up with some international law theory to justify their support for an attack, and the UK seems interested in the “humanitarian intervention” justification.  If the U.S. goes along with this, it would be interesting to see if the “invisible college of international lawyers” will endorse this legal theory.

President Obama Cites International Law as Limitation on U.S. Response to Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attack

by Julian Ku

As regular readers may recall, I am skeptical that the use of chemical weapons, by itself, can justify the use of military force under current international law absent authorization from the U.N. Security Council.  Of course, I wouldn’t oppose the use of military force by the U.S. to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I just doubt its legality under international law.  More importantly, so does President Obama. Although reports are out suggesting the U.S. is preparing to launch cruise missiles into Syria, President Obama also told CNN yesterday:

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work,” he said in the interview on CNN’s “New Day” show. “Those are considerations that we have to take into account.”

And unlike me, he treats the questionable legality of a U.S. action (at least under international law) as a real constraint.  (Interestingly, the President doesn’t seem particularly concerned about whether Congress would approve his action, so I guess that legal bridge has already been crossed.)

I should also note here that Prof. Jordan Paust has offered a legal theory I hadn’t previously considered: that NATO might be able to strike into Syria pursuant to Art. 52 of the U.N. Charter, which may be interpreted to authorize regional organizations to act to maintain “peace and security.” I guess I have to side with Prof. (and former ICJ judge) Bruno Simma to reject this reading of Article 52, especially given Article 53′s plain language subordinating Art. 52 to Article 51′s broad prohibition on the use of force. (See Art. 53: “no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council”).

In any event, given President Obama’s comments, international law is going to matter here.  I expect his lawyers are working overtime to come up with a plausible legal justification for a Syria strike (too bad he has no confirmed adviser at State yet).  Maybe Turkey (a NATO member) can manufacture an incident of some sort to serve as a useful casus belli?  In any event, it will be interesting to see what they come up with.  Lots of luck!

Emerging Voices: Limits to R2P–Lessons from the Arab Spring Conflicts

by Aqsa Mahmud

[Aqsa Mahmud graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and currently practices as a government attorney in Washington, DC]

The international community’s application (or nonapplication) of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to the recent Arab conflicts highlights notable limits to R2P. R2P is a relatively new doctrine that holds States responsible for protecting their populations and, where the sovereign fails, allows for foreign intervention. Although independent reports have proposed a test for application, the international community has not adopted a set criterion. Every situation of R2P’s potential use—whether applied or not—should be examined. In both Libya and Syria, the governments used military force against civilians and failed to protect their populations; however, R2P was only applied to Libya. The disparate application of R2P in Syria, in comparison to Libya, illustrates several limiting factors that will guide R2P in future scenarios.

Foremost, the Libya-Syria distinction shows that R2P application depends on, and is limited by, regional attitudes towards aggressive international action. This factor reflects the primary difference between the decision to intervene in Libya and not Syria. In the case of Libya, regional organizations showed their contempt for the Qaddafi regime early on. As the conflict escalated, organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) supported aggressive measures such as a no-fly zone. These options were already being debated at the international level but regional attitudes legitimized a hardline approach. A regional consensus on the Libyan conflict and against the Qaddafi regime activated Security Council members who, at that time, included non-permanent members associated with the region. Some have gone so far as to say that Resolution 1973 would have been impossible absent the position of the League of Arab States (LAS). Of importance, these regional organizations presented a general consensus on the deterioration of the humanitarian situation and need for aggressive action. They did not, however, envision or promote the same type of response. Thus, future use of R2P will likely depend on a general regional consensus in support of aggressive international action.

In comparison, the Syrian conflict failed to generate the type of regional support seen for Libya. The Syrian conflict raised concern without…

Guest Post: Jurisdictional Aspects of the Article 12(2) Rome Statute Vessel Provision: Some Thoughts on the Provision’s Dogma and Implementation in light of the Comoros Referral

by Solon Solomon and Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto

[Solon Solomon will join King’s College of London, Dickson Poon School of Law as of September 2013, and Jackson Nyamuya Maogoto is a Faculty member of the University of Manchester, School of Law.]

Much has already been written on the Comoros referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in light of the Mavi Marmara incident (EJIL:Talk!, Opinio Juris, Human Rights Blog and Dov Jacobs Blog). The referral while premised on a legal footing arguably has a second facet which is significant—political. It is as been noted elsewhere (EJIL:Talk!) that this was the first case where an African state referred a non-African state to the Court. The political parameter aside, the Comoros referral introduces two important doctrinal issues which pervade the discussions of this referral. These are article 12(2) of the Rome Statute regarding vessel jurisdiction and the legal discourse around the axiom that all State Parties can refer to the Court possible crimes perpetrated on the territory of a State Party. The authors’ assertion is that the two spectra have wider implications for future cases and thus their elaboration is essential in the realm of the Prosecutor’s response to the Comoros referral.

As far as jurisdiction is concerned, we add our voice to authors who have so far who have held this is asserted. (See EJIL:Talk!, Opinio Juris and Human Rights Blog-spot) In this particular piece we would like to argue that such an assertion is de lege lata and not necessarily the case de lege ferenda. The assertion of jurisdiction derives from article 12(2)’s grammatical reading. However it is imperative to bear in mind that since the Rome Statute is a negotiated treaty, it is subject to wider reflection other than the narrow confines of the black letter provision. In this regard we aver that as a treaty, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) is at play and in this regard invite consideration that the treaty provisions as provided for in the VCLT should be read in their contextual and historical depth, including their negotiation history and the volition of the parties. As such, there are elements that accompany the Rome Statute provisions on vessel jurisdiction which while not embedded in the wording of the provision itself, still constitute part of its essence. The Rome Statute provision was drafted along the lines of article 91 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The latter, echoing a strong jurisprudence and treaty tradition stipulates and favours the notion that there must be a genuine link between the flag state and the vessel. This genuine link requirement is critical. While in some instances judicial bodies may have appeared reluctant to assert it, the reason was not its denial, but judicial and academic fears that a strict diligence to the principle would eventually preclude the forging of any nationality bonds, a far worse scenario.

In the MV “Saiga” (No.2) case, the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea expressly stated that the role of the genuine link requirement is to secure more effective implementation of the duties of the flag state. UNCLOS does not envision an arrangement where states just confer nationality to ships and then are not at all engaged in their activities. Nationality is regarded as having a functional character. States try to protect social bonds of attachment against mere formal nationality imposed by the technicalities of law. This functional inquisition is evident in diverse fora. For example in the case of UN sanctions, such as those against Serbia and Iran, the relevant Security Council Resolutions considered the nationality of the vessel based on ownership or contract terms, regardless of the flag under which the ship may sail. (see UN SC Res 787 (1992) and UN SC Res 1929 (2010)). Essentially then, Article 91(1) of UNCLOS should be read in conjunction with article 94, in a way that the exercise of effective jurisdiction over the vessel constitutes one of the necessary conditions for granting nationality. It is thus too long a legal bow to draw that with embryonic jurisprudence on the subject, the ICC will have in mind previous positions and thus reflect on its article 12(2) vessel jurisdiction as not only encapsulating the straight line reading on flag jurisdiction but also the matter of a genuine link with the vessel particularly given the nature of its mandate.

In the case of Comoros, the Mavi Marmara was Comoros flagged just a week before the flotilla incident. (more…)

Guest Post: Egypt’s Non-Democratic Coup d’Etat

by Ozan Varol

[Ozan Varol is Assistant Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School.]

Since the Egyptian military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, various commentators have pondered whether the military’s actions fit within the framework I described in an article titled The Democratic Coup d’Etat, published last summer in the Harvard International Law Journal (see here, here, here, here, and here).  In this post, I will discuss whether Morsi’s ouster was a coup—the United States remains unwilling to use the magic word—and if so, whether it constitutes a “democratic coup.”  I will conclude the post by analyzing why the Turkish government stands largely alone among foreign governments in its staunch and vocal opposition to Morsi’s ouster.

Was Morsi’s ouster a coup?  The answer is yes.  Initially, there was arguably some room for legal interpretation, primarily because the academic literature is rife with competing definitions of a coup d’état. Under most definitions, however, Morsi’s ouster was a coup from the outset. For example, Samuel Huntington defines a coup as “the effort by a political coalition illegally to replace the existing governmental leaders by violence or the threat of violence.”  Likewise, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne define coups as “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means.” The Egyptian military ousted a democratically elected president through the use of extra-legal and extra-constitutional means. That is surely a coup d’état under these definitions.

Under an alternative understanding, however, a coup occurs “when the military, or a section of the military, turns its coercive power against the apex of the state, establishes itself there, and the rest of the state takes its orders from the new regime.”  Charles Sampford, Coups d’Etat and Law, in Shaping Revolution 164 (E. Attwooll ed., 1991).  That is not precisely what happened in Egypt because the military established an interim government run by civilian, not military, leaders—a marked departure from the coup that deposed Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and replaced it with an interim government composed of military leaders (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF). Even under this alternative definition, however, Morsi’s ouster likely constitutes a coup since a constitutional declaration issued by the interim civilian President cited the military’s takeover statement as the basis of his own authority.  In other words, even though the military is not actively supervising the transition process as it did following Mubarak’s ouster, the military currently appears to be the ultimate source of governmental authority in Egypt.

Was the coup a “democratic coup”?  (more…)

Emerging Voices: International Water Law – Preventing Conflict on the Nile

by Scott McKenzie

[Scott McKenzie is a lawyer in private practice.  His scholarship focuses on water policy in the context of sustainable development.]

The Nile River is currently one of the most contentious transboundary water hotspots.  As Ethiopia begins construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), it forces Egypt and other basin states to re-examine how the Nile’s water is allocated.  This situation has the potential to result in conflict, but modern international water law can help these states settle their differences peacefully.  At the heart of water law are principles regarding the allocation and management of these resources.  These principles are designed to promote cooperation, prevent conflict, and provide needed stability.  The Nile is a timely case study to see how these principles can be applied.

The conflict over the Nile’s water pits the more developed downstream countries Egypt and Sudan against the still developing upstream countries including Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, and South Sudan. The downstream countries are almost completely dependent on the Nile’s water and have historically received a large portion of the Nile’s flow.  However, as the upstream countries begin to develop they need more water for their drinking water, agricultural irrigation, and hydropower production.

In June, Ethiopia began diverting a portion of the Nile as part of its plans for the construction of the GERD. Egypt was alarmed by this move because the GERD is a stunning size.  When complete, it will be the largest dam in Africa and have a generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts (the equivalent of 6 nuclear power plants).  Egypt is concerned that such a dam could reduce the amount of water it receives from the Nile, and because it is a signal that in the future the upstream countries will wield greater power over the Nile.

Neither Egypt or Ethiopia has gone to war over the Nile’s water, but both sides are engaging in a tremendous amount of saber-rattling.  For example, at a recent forum of Egyptian politicians, it was suggested that the country could sabotage dam construction though a covert military campaign.  Ethiopia has long been concerned about such a plot.  As former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he was not “worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia … Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story.”

Governing this conflict are competing legal instruments, which also reflect the evolution of water law.  (more…)