The International Law Commission wrestled for over a decade with the relationship between the principle of equitable utilization and the no harm principle in its work on the law of the non-navigational uses of international watercourses. In its final Report to the UN General Assembly on this topic in 1994, the Commission presented a set of Draft Articles couched in obscure language that reflected the sharp differences of opinion on the matter and the compromises that had been made. This division of opinion about the relationship between these two principles persisted in the Working Group of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly to which the Draft Articles were referred. Again, compromises were reached and the language of the substantive articles (in particular Articles 5, 7, 20, and 21) of the Watercourses Convention, adopted by the General Assembly on May 21, 1997, continues to be obscure and its meaning debatable.
It is argued here that in this Convention the principle of equitable utilization, which prescribes the reasonable and equitable sharing of the beneficial uses of the waters of an international watercourse, is made the primary substantive rule of international water law; harm caused by a utilization of these waters is, of course, an important factor to be taken into account in determining whether, in a particular case, the utilization is reasonable and equitable and, therefore, lawful. This interpretation of the Watercourses Convention brings it into harmony with customary international water law. It is an interpretation that finds support in the recent decision of the International Court of fustice in the Gabákovo case.