International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Fall 2017 Issue



The Ramsar Convention and Wetlands Protection

Mehrdad Mohamadi
By: Mehrdad Mohamadi, PhD in International Law, Tehran, Iran

Wetlands are among the most productive environments in the world. They are considered as biodiversity cradles of the earth. By providing water and primary breeding ability, they play an important role in the survival of unlimited species of plants and animals dependent on them. In fact, large gatherings of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and wildlife live in wetlands. Wetlands enjoy significant economic value, including increasing the quality of drinking water, flood control, recreational activities and fishing, wildlife habitat. However, because of the differences in geographical dimensions and situations of wetlands and their exploitation, a precise definition of the wetland before the conclusion of the Ramsar Convention was difficult. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the Ramsar Convention has provided a solid definition for wetlands as follows:

Areas of marsh, fen, peat land or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters.

Wetlands are ecologically important and regulate aquatic diets and biodiversity resources at all levels, including species, production, inheritance and ecosystems. Unfortunately, despite the valuable benefits of wetlands as the most productive environments in the world, the crisis caused by natural and human factors threatens their existence. Thus, international efforts to counteract the serious damage to wetlands and focus on the survival and conservation of habitats were the basis for the development of the Ramsar Convention.

The Ramsar Convention, A Specialist Legal System for the Protection of Wetlands

With the progress of science and technology, humans learned to change their environment, which has in turn caused enormous environmental hazards. International environmental law is one of the most important sources for coping with these threats, as well as regulating the international law enforcement bodies in the use of natural resources and the environment. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Environment of 1972 (Stockholm) recognized "The Right to the Environment," which means that the right to a healthy environment, such as freedom and equality, is a fundamental right of humans. Proper planning and management to protect natural resources including air, water and soil, flowers and plants, especially specific ecosystems, such as wetlands for the use of current and future generations, are the common responsibilities of individuals and governments.

In fact the need to protect the environment is a common issue in domestic and international law. The Stockholm Declaration is one of the first documents expressly emphasizing this point. The Declaration maintains that “In accordance with the United Nations Charter and the principles of international law, Governments have exclusive jurisdiction over their natural resources, including soils, inland waters such as lakes, waterways and wetlands, and the territorial sea and territorial boundaries of the territory, and are obliged to adopt arrangements to ensure that activities in their area of competence and supervision do not harm the environment of countries or areas beyond their national jurisdiction”. This principle has been reiterated in the 1992 Convention on Biological


Diversity (CBD) and in the Rio Declaration (1992), and on this basis, the International Court of Justice recognizes the commitment to these principles as part of international environmental law. Moreover, states are committed to working together to protect the environment. Also, in accordance with Principle 24 of the Stockholm Declaration, all governments, small and large, should cooperate for international environmental protection and improvement of the environment, through the development of bilateral or multilateral agreements and, if necessary, for the prevention and reduction of environmental degradation caused by human activities.

The Ramsar Convention, as an older international treaty, is based on the principle of states cooperation, with an emphasis on one of the principles of international environmental law, namely the principle of environmental protection. It is, also, one of the first effective coordinating measures in protecting wetlands that was formed as a consequence of human acquaintance with the unique features of wetlands and global participation in the protection of wetlands. Through its years of activity, the convention has enabled the international community to provide the ground for further study and conservation of wetlands on the international level. The convention of Ramsar, named after the Iranian city of Ramsar in which the delegations adopted the treaty, is an international agreement according to which member states beyond the geographical boundaries study and investigate the environmental issues of the wetlands of the countries concerned, in particular the international wetlands, and the results of ecological studies are shared among the states parties. The convention concluded in February 2, 1971, and came into force on December 21, 1975, and thus February 2nd is called the World Wetlands Day. The purpose of this Convention is to ensure the protection and rational use of wetlands through local, national, regional and international efforts to achieve sustainable development around the world. In this regard, any country in the world that wishes to become a member of the Ramsar Convention should have introduced at least one of its wetlands to the convention's office. The Convention secretariat will examine, in accordance with the terms and conditions of the wetland, and, if it has the necessary conditions, it will register it at the Convention Office as an international wetland. Today, the number of state parties to the Convention has exceeded to 165 countries.

Generally, the mission of the Ramsar Convention is to protect and make reasonable use of all wetlands through local, regional, national and international efforts to help achieve sustainable development around the world that the Secretariat of the Convention is in the process of implementing.

Since the Ramsar Convention was the first global experience in protecting the wetlands, this mechanism certainly had some legal deficiencies and weaknesses. The Ramsar Convention was amended accordingly. Consequently, in December 1982, the governments adopted an extraordinary conference on the reform protocol under the Paris Protocol at UNESCO headquarters, which was implemented in 1986. Today, almost all parties to the Convention are parties to the Paris Protocol. On the other hand, at an extraordinary conference held in 1987 in the presence of the parties in Regina, Canada, amendments were made to the powers of the contracting parties, the establishment of a permanent committee, budget and a permanent office or secretariat, and these amendments came into force in 1994. New parties joining the Ramsar Convention are considered to be part of the reform protocols of Paris and Regina.

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© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

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