The Iron Rhine Case

Chapter by Professor Freya Baetens in the edited book "Sustainable Development Principles in the Decisions of International Courts and Tribunals: 1992 - 2012," edited by Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger and H.E. Judge C.G. Weeramantry.


17 August 1585 - Antwerp, the cultural, economic and financial centre of the Seventeen Provinces and one of the most prosperous cities of north-western Europe, surrenders to the Spanish troops after more than one year of siege. The partition of the northern and southern provinces of the Netherlands is a fact. After the siege, the Dutch fleet on the river Scheldt is kept in position for the next two centuries, blocking the city's access to the sea, cutting it off from international trade and thereby crippling its economy; a traumatic passage in the history of relations between the Netherlands and Flanders. 

This all occurred in times long past but once in a while disputes still arise with regard to Dutch-Flemish/Belgian activities in this region. Where the declared focus of the argument used to be on religion (Protestant versus Catholic), both sides now often invoke the protection of the environment as the main reason for their conduct, as illustrated not only by the object of the present chapter, the Iron Rhine dispute, but also for example by the debates concerning the deepening of the Westerschelde (the estuary of the Scheldt river). One of the underlying motives for both parties, throughout history, is and has always been economic: the competition between the port of Antwerp (Belgium) and that of Rotterdam (the Netherlands). Hence , during the discussion of the Iron Rhine case in general and the sustainable development principle as applied in this dispute in particular, the reader ought to bear in mind that arguments on both sides might be informed by other than purely environmental reasons. The presence of such underlying motives does not imply that this case is merely a "cover" - unable to contribute in a significant manner to the clarification of the status and content of of sustainable development principles. On the contrary, it is highly likely that in any given dispute where environmental protection plays a role, other motives will need to be considered as well - so the true value of the Iron Rhine case årecisly lies in its search for the "right balance" of sustainable developments in its economic and environmental form. 

This chapter first addresses the factual background of the Iron Rhine dispute, including the questions submitted to the arbitral panel; continuing with an analysis of the award itself, focusing on the treatment of sustainable development principles; and finishing with an assessment of the relevance of this case for the future application of sustainable development principles in other similar cases. 

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Tags: Environment, ICJ
Published Aug. 4, 2017 1:46 PM - Last modified Nov. 14, 2017 11:42 AM