What are the Parties' commitments under the Convention?
When countries join the Convention, they are enlisting in an international effort to ensure the conservation and wise use of wetlands. The treaty includes four main commitments that the Contracting Parties have agreed to by joining.
1. Listed sites (Article 2 of the Convention)
The first obligation under the Convention is for a Party to designate at least one wetland at the time of accession for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (the “Ramsar List”) and to promote its conservation, and in addition to continue to “designate suitable wetlands within its territory” for the List (Article 2.1). Selection for the Ramsar List should be based on the wetland’s significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology, limnology, or hydrology. The Contracting Parties have developed specific criteria and guidelines for identifying sites that qualify for inclusion in the Ramsar List.
In Article 3.2, each Party has committed itself “to arrange to be informed at the earliest possible time if the ecological character of any wetland in its territory and included in the List has changed, is changing or is likely to change as the result of technological developments, pollution or other human interference. Information on such changes shall be passed without delay” to the Ramsar Secretariat.
2. Wise use (Article 3 of the Convention)
Under the Convention there is a general obligation for the Contracting Parties to include wetland conservation considerations in their national land-use planning. They have committed themselves to formulate and implement this planning so as to promote, as far as possible, “the wise use of wetlands in their territory” (Article 3.1).
The Conference of the Contracting Parties has approved guidelines on how to achieve “wise use”, which has been interpreted as being synonymous with “sustainable use”. The COP has also adopted detailed guidance on the development of National Wetland Policies and on management planning for individual wetland sites.
3. Reserves and training (Article 4 of the Convention)
Contracting Parties have also undertaken to establish nature reserves in wetlands, whether or not they are included in the Ramsar List, and they are expected to promote training in the fields of wetland research, management and wardening.
4. International cooperation (Article 5 of the Convention)
Contracting Parties have also agreed to consult with other Contracting Parties about implementation of the Convention, especially in regard to transboundary wetlands, shared water systems, and shared species.
Compliance with the commitments
The Ramsar Convention is not a regulatory regime and has no punitive sanctions for violations of or defaulting upon treaty commitments – nevertheless, its terms do constitute a solemn treaty and are binding in international law in that sense. The whole edifice is based upon an expectation of common and equitably shared transparent accountability. Failure to live up to that expectation could lead to political and diplomatic discomfort in high-profile international fora or the media, and would prevent any Party concerned from getting the most, more generally, out of what would otherwise be a robust and coherent system of checks and balances and mutual support frameworks. Failure to meet the treaty’s commitments may also impact upon success in other ways, for example, in efforts to secure international funding for wetland conservation. In addition, some national jurisdictions now embody international Ramsar obligations in national law and/or policy with direct effect in their own court systems.
One extremely important part of the Parties’ responsibilities has to do with reporting on the implementation of the Convention within their territories. The Parties report on their progress by submitting triennial National Reports to the Conference of the Contracting Parties – these are prepared following a format adopted by the Parties which is derived from the Convention’s Strategic Plan and Work Plan for the triennium, and they become part of the public record. In addition, under Article 3.2 of the treaty, Parties are expected to report to the Secretariat any changes or threats to the ecological character of their listed wetlands and to respond to the Secretariat’s inquiries about such reports received from third parties.