Ilisu dam in breach of international law

An independent legal opinion concludes that the planned Ilisu dam in Turkey is in breach of international law. Switzerland and other governments would violate international law if they provided official export credits or guarantees to fund the dam. The Berne Declaration, which has commissioned the legal opinion, calls on governments not to become accomplices in the breach of international law.

The Ilisu dam is part of the larger South-East Anatolia Project (GAP) on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Iraq, Syria and the League of Arab States have protested that the GAP, and the Ilisu dam more particularly, are part of Turkey’s aggressive water policies vis-a-vis the neighboring states. The Ilisu consortium, which is headed by Sulzer Hydro of Switzerland, has applied for official export finance from several countries, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Sweden and Italy.

A new independent legal opinion concludes that the Ilisu project is in breach of international law on several accounts. The legal opinion was commissioned by the Swiss advocacy group, the Berne Declaration, and prepared by Professor Astrid Epiney of Fribourg University. Professor Epiney is a renowned expert of international environmental law and a winner of the Latsis Prize. According to the opinion, Turkey would violate the obligations to notify and consult potentially affected states, the obligation to adequately utilize shared natural ressources, and the inhibition to cause significant transboundary harm by building the Ilisu dam as currently planned. By providing official export finance, Switzerland – or other involved states – would be aiding and abetting Turkey in breaching international law, and would thereby breach international law themselves.

In an interview with the Swiss “SonntagsZeitung”, Roberto Balzaretti, head of the international law division of the Swiss foreign ministry, said that the legal opinion was “a very good document from a renowned professor”. Yet Balzaretti claimed that the concept of aiding and abetting did not exist in international law. Economics minister Pascal Couchepin in turn informed the parliamentary foreign relations committee that the Swiss government would take another decision on whether or not to grant an official export risk guarantee for Ilisu. In November 1998, the government had made a preliminary decision to provide a guarantee of SF 470 million for the project.

In a statement, the Berne Declaration renewed its call on all interested governments not to provide any funding for Ilisu. Peter Bosshard of the Berne Declaration says: “The environment has become an important source of international conflicts. Therefore, all states need to strictly abide by and even strengthen international law in matters of the environment. It would be scandalous if by funding Ilisu, governments became accomplices in breaching international law in the pursuit of short-term economic gains.”

Turkey plans to build the Ilisu dam on the Tigris, 65 kilomters upstream of the Syrian and Iraqi border. With 1200 megawatt and a reservoir of 313 square kilometers, Ilisu is the largest planned hydropower plant in Turkey. If built, the dam would require the displacement of 15,000-20,000 people, and would negatively affect many more.