The Ramsar Convention in international environmental law: an update for 2000 (reprint article)


iucn.gif (4347 bytes)

Hard at work conserving the world’s wetlands: Current Activities of the Ramsar Convention

[Reprinted with permission from the IUCN Environmental Law Programme Newsletter, September-December 2000, pp. 14-15.]

Oldest of the global conservation/ biodiversity conventions, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (a.k.a. the Ramsar Convention) is well reputed, not least for the quality and quantity of its substantive outputs. In 2000, Ramsar’s somewhat unique Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STRP), as well as its Standing Committee met to address a number of legal and institutional issues, as well as their customary full range of scientific and technical matters. iucn-elp.gif (1356 bytes)The ELP has been active in working with Ramsar, addressing legal issues whose relevance may also extend to the other Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

It would be difficult, in a single newsletter article, to give a full account of the works of the active and productive parties, secretariat and subsidiary bodies of this Convention. (A full description can be found at The following is a brief account of some of the important law-related developments discerned in the Standing Committee’s and STRP’s deliberations.

Revisions to Ramsar site boundaries and interpretation of Articles 2.5 and 4.2 of the Convention

In furtherance of Decision SC24-10, early in 2000, the Ramsar Secretariat asked the ELC to study the concepts of ‘urgent national interest’ (as it appears in Article 2.5) and compensation’ (as it appears in Article 4.2). In particular, the ELC was called upon to evaluate the meaning of these terms in international law and practice, and to advise on their specific application under current Ramsar documents and practices. ELC’s analysis has been examined favourably by the Standing Committee which intends to disseminate it for comment among Ramsar member states. That analysis identifies a significant need for further work and the development of policies for the international operation of the Convention, as well as guidance to member states who might be considering adjusting the boundaries of declared sites, both for urgent national interests and for other reasons.

Operations of the Convention, Conferences of Parties and Subsidiary Bodies

Ramsar is also beginning a systematic evaluation of its operations and institutional organisation. The ELC has provided initial input into questions of the role and nature of COP operations and decisions. It is hoped that this work will continue.

In addition, the Ramsar subsidiary bodies are in the process of re-examining their own role and the level of demand that they have been called upon to satisfy. As noted above, these bodies have been prolific and are a major contributor to the impressive body of guidelines and guidance documents that have been developed and widely disseminated under the Convention.


The Ramsar Convention has been at the forefront of the efforts to harmonise the work of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). It is now in the process of developing the third of the ground-breaking "Joint CBD-Ramsar Workplans". These workplans have become the model by which other conventions are seeking to develop complementary working arrangements with the CBD. Ramsar’s first collaboration with the CBD, the "River Basin Initiative" (originally developed "to assist countries in getting good-practice information") continues to operate and has drawn significant interest, not only from the wetland community; but from the water management community as well, and has been an important mechanism for bringing these two sectors together.

Beyond this, Ramsar has been invited to participate in a special exercise aimed at harmonising the environmental conventions. In accordance with recent CBD COP decisions, the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) was instructed to work with the Ramsar STRP and other bodies, to address a suite of issues of importance to all agreements relating to impact assessment, inland waters, alien species and other issues. Additional work proposed by Ramsar working groups will also focus on collaborative or complementary relationship with work of the CBD in these areas. Such work will include the development of proposals or possible guidelines on incentive measures.

The Ramsar Bureau has also been authorized to begin to develop direct cooperative efforts with the secretariats of other global treaties, as a prelude to eventually developing with each of these the level of cooperation currently enjoyed with the CBD. Ramsar Standing Committee members specifically offered to advance that process within their home countries by, for example, forging links with the national focal points of other conventions.

Ramsar is also a pioneer in efforts to broaden co-operation with observer bodies and other organizations. Its relationship with IUCN is, of course, particularly close (IUCN is specifically charged with particular responsibilities in the text of the Convention.) In addition, the Ramsar STRP considered a number of opportunities for collaboration with other entities, including the International Association for Impact Assessment, UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme, and the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island States.

Water Allocation

Another critical area in which Ramsar is working is the allocation and management of water. Ramsar’s involvement in this issue underscores the importance of consideration, within the allocation process, of the role of water and flow-rates for maintaining ecological functions. In many cases, the business model for water allocation (which often gives little or no consideration to ecosystem function) is taken as the basis for international agreements on transboundary watercourses. Ramsar hopes to develop links with regional agreements such as the Danube and Lake Chad initiatives and with the development of the River Basin Initiative’s proposed case studies as well.

Other Critical Issues

A number of other Ramsar working groups are actively addressing issues of legal as well as general environmental importance. Among these are working groups on integrated coastal zone management (ICZM), wetland restoration, invasive species, dams, migratory species and waterbirds, under-represented wetland types, climate change, and community and indigenous participation in wetland management (through a new Participatory Management Networking Service (PMNS), to be managed by IUCN’s Social Policy Programme.) In most of these groups work is focusing on development of specific outputs in the form of guidelines and case studies, to support work in these areas.

The ELP expects to maintain its close working relationship with Ramsar, and hopes to aid the Convention and its parties in achieving their laudably ambitious workplan for the wetlands, species and people of the planet.

Tomme Young
IUCN Environmental Law Centre
Godesberger Allee 108-112
53175 Bonn, Germany

For more information on interesting issues in conservation law, visit the IUCN Environmental Law Programme Web site at .

Back to top
Follow us 
Ramsar Awards 

The Convention today

Number of » Contracting Parties: 168 Sites designated for the
» List of Wetlands of
International Importance
2,186 Total surface area of designated sites (hectares): 208,674,247

Ramsar Secretariat

Rue Mauverney 28
CH-1196 Gland, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 22 999 0170
Fax: +41 22 999 0169
Map: click here

Ramsar Forum: subscribe