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World Court Digest

I. Substantive International Law - First Part
7.7. Suspension and Termination

¤ Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Project
(Hungary / Slovakia)
Judgment of 25 September 1997
I.C.J. Reports 1997, p. 7

[pp. 38-39] 46. The Court has no need to dwell upon the question of the applicability in the present case of the Vienna Convention of 1969 on the Law of Treaties. It needs only to be mindful of the fact that it has several times had occasion to hold that some of the rules laid down in that Convention might be considered as a codification of existing customary law. The Court takes the view that in many respects this applies to the provisions of the Vienna Convention concerning the termination and the suspension of the operation of treaties, set forth in Articles 60 to 62 (see Legal Consequences for States of the Continued Presence of South Africa in Namibia (South-West Africa) notwithstanding Security Council Resolution 276 (1970)), Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1971, p. 47 and Fisheries Jurisdiction (United Kingdom v. Ice land), Jurisdiction of the Court, Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1973, p. 18; see also Interpretation of the Agreement of 25 March 1951 between the WHO and Egypt, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1980, pp. 95-96).

Neither has the Court lost sight of the fact that the Vienna Convention is in any event applicable to the Protocol of 6 February 1989 whereby Hungary and Czechoslovakia agreed to accelerate completion of the works relating to the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Project.

47. Nor does the Court need to dwell upon the question of the relationship between the law of treaties and the law of State responsibility, to which the Parties devoted lengthy arguments, as those two branches of international law obviously have a scope that is distinct. A determination of whether a convention is or is not in force, and whether it has or has not been properly suspended or denounced, is to be made pursuant to the law of treaties. On the other hand, an evaluation of the extent to which the suspension or denunciation of a convention, seen as incompatible with the law of treaties, involves the responsibility of the State which proceeded to it, is to be made under the law of State responsibility.

Thus the Vienna Convention of 1969 on the Law of Treaties confines itself to defining - in a limitative manner - the conditions in which a treaty may lawfully be denounced or suspended; while the effects of a denunciation or suspension seen as not meeting those conditions are, on the contrary, expressly excluded from the scope of the Convention by operation of Article 73. It is moreover well established that, when a State has committed an internationally wrongful act, its international responsibility is likely to be involved whatever the nature of the obligation it has failed to respect (cf. Interpretation of Peace Treaties with Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, Second Phase, Advisory Opinion, I.C.J. Reports 1950, p. 228; and see Article 17 of the Draft Articles on State Responsibility provisionally adopted by the International Law Commission on first reading, Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1980, Vol. II, Part 2, p. 32).

48. The Court cannot accept Hungary's argument to the effect that, in 1989, in suspending and subsequently abandoning the works for which it was still responsible at Nagymaros and at Dunakiliti, it did not, for all that, suspend the application of the 1977 Treaty itself or then reject that Treaty. The conduct of Hungary at that time can only be interpreted as an expression of its unwillingness to comply with at least some of the provisions of the Treaty and the Protocol of 6 February 1989, as specified in the Joint Contractual Plan. The effect of Hungary's conduct was to render impossible the accomplishment of the system of works that the Treaty expressly described as "single and indivisible".

The Court moreover observes that, when it invoked the state of necessity in an effort to justify that conduct, Hungary chose to place itself from the outset within the ambit of the law of State responsibility, thereby implying that, in the absence of such a circumstance, its conduct would have been unlawful. The state of necessity claimed by Hungary - supposing it to have been established - thus could not permit of the conclusion that, in 1989, it had acted in accordance with its obligations under the 1977 Treaty or that those obligations had ceased to be binding upon it. It would only permit the affirmation that, under the circumstances, Hungary would not incur international responsibility by acting as it did. Lastly, the Court points out that Hungary expressly acknowledged that, in any event, such a state of necessity would not exempt it from its duty to compensate its partner.

[pp. 62-68] 98. The question, as formulated in Article 2, paragraph 1(c), of the Special Agreement, deals with treaty law since the Court is asked to determine what the legal effects are of the notification of termination of the Treaty. The question is whether Hungary's notification of l9 May 1992 brought the 1977 Treaty to an end, or whether it did not meet the requirements of international law, with the consequence that it did not terminate the Treaty.

99. The Court has referred earlier to the question of the applicability to the present case of the Vienna Convention of 1969 on the Law of Treaties. The Vienna Convention is not directly applicable to the 1977 Treaty inasmuch as both States ratified that Convention only after the Treaty's conclusion.

Consequently only those rules which are declaratory of customary law are applicable to the 1977 Treaty. As the Court has already stated above (see paragraph 46), this is the case, in many respects, with Articles 60 to 62 of the Vienna Convention, relating to termination or suspension of the operation of a treaty. On this, the Parties, too, were broadly in agreement.

100. The 1977 Treaty does not contain any provision regarding its termination. Nor is there any indication that the parties intended to admit the possibility of denunciation or withdrawal. On the contrary, the Treaty establishes a long-standing and durable regime of joint investment and joint operation. Consequently, the parties not having agreed otherwise, the Treaty could be terminated only on the limited grounds enumerated in the Vienna Convention.

101. The Court will now turn to the first ground advanced by Hungary, that of the state of necessity. In this respect, the Court will merely observe that, even if a state of necessity is found to exist, it is not a ground for the termination of a treaty. It may only be invoked to exonerate from its responsibility a State which has failed to implement a treaty. Even if found justified, it does not terminate a Treaty; the Treaty may be ineffective as long as the condition of necessity continues to exist; it may in fact be dormant, but - unless the parties by mutual agreement terminate the Treaty - it continues to exist. As soon as the state of necessity ceases to exist, the duty to comply with treaty obligations revives.

102. Hungary also relied on the principle of the impossibility of performance as reflected in Article 61 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Hungary's interpretation of the wording of Article 61 is, however, not in conformity with the terms of that Article, nor with the intentions of the Diplomatic Conference which adopted the Convention. Article 61, paragraph 1, requires the "permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution" of the treaty to justify the termination of a treaty on grounds of impossibility of performance. During the conference, a proposal was made to extend the scope of the article by including in it cases such as the impossibility to make certain payments because of serious financial difficulties (Official Records of the United Nations Conference on the Law of Treaties, First Session, Vienna, 26 March - 24 May 1968, Doc. A/CONF.39/11, Summary records of the plenary meetings and of the meetings of the Committee of the Whole, 62nd Meeting of the Committee of the Whole, pp. 361-365). Although it was recognized that such situations could lead to a preclusion of the wrongfulness of non-performance by a party of its treaty obligations, the participating States were not prepared to consider such situations to be a ground for terminating or suspending a treaty, and preferred to limit themselves to a narrower concept.

103. Hungary contended that the essential object of the Treaty - an economic joint investment which was consistent with environmental protection and which was operated by the two contracting parties jointly - had permanently disappeared and that the Treaty had thus become impossible to perform. It is not necessary for the Court to determine whether the term "object" in Article 61 can also be understood to embrace a legal régime as in any event, even if that were the case, it would have to conclude that in this instance that regime had not definitively ceased to exist. The 1977 Treaty - and in particular its Articles 15, 19 and 20 - actually made available to the parties the necessary means to proceed at any time, by negotiation, to the required readjustments between economic imperatives and ecological imperatives. The Court would add that, if the joint exploitation of the investment was no longer possible, this was originally because Hungary did not carry out most of the works for which it was responsible under the 1977 Treaty; Article 61, paragraph 2, of the Vienna Convention expressly provides that impossibility of performance may not be invoked for the termination of a treaty by a party to that treaty when it results from that party's own breach of an obligation flowing from that treaty.

104. Hungary further argued that it was entitled to invoke a number of events which, cumulatively, would have constituted a fundamental change of circumstances. In this respect it specified profound changes of a political nature, the Project's diminishing economic viability, the progress of environmental knowledge and the development of new norms and prescriptions of international environmental law (see paragraph 95 above).

The Court recalls that, in the Fisheries Jurisdiction case (I.C.J. Reports 1973, p. 63, para. 36), it stated that,

"Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties,... may in many respects be considered as a codification of existing customary law on the subject of the termination of a treaty relationship on account of change of circumstances".

The prevailing political situation was certainly relevant for the conclusion of the 1977 Treaty. But the Court will recall that the Treaty provided for a joint investment programme for the production of energy, the control of floods and the improvement of navigation on the Danube. In the Court's view, the prevalent political conditions were thus not so closely linked to the object and purpose of the Treaty that they constituted an essential basis of the consent of the parties and, in changing, radically altered the extent of the obligations still to be performed. The same holds good for the economic system in force at the time of the conclusion of the 1977 Treaty. Besides, even though the estimated profitability of the Project might have appeared less in 1992 than in 1977, it does not appear from the record before the Court that it was bound to diminish to such an extent that the treaty obligations of the parties would have been radically transformed as a result.

The Court does not consider that new developments in the state of environmental knowledge and of environmental law can be said to have been completely unforeseen. What is more, the formulation of Articles 15, 19 and 20, designed to accommodate change, made it possible for the parties to take account of such developments and to apply them when implementing those treaty provisions.

The changed circumstances advanced by Hungary are, in the Court's view, not of such a nature, either individually or collectively, that their effect would radically transform the extent of the obligations still to be performed in order to accomplish the Project. A fundamental change of circumstances must have been unforeseen; the existence of the circumstances at the time of the Treaty's conclusion must have constituted an essential basis of the consent of the parties to be bound by the Treaty. The negative and conditional wording of Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties is a clear indication moreover that the stability of treaty relations requires that the plea of fundamental change of circumstances be applied only in exceptional cases.

l05. The Court will now examine Hungary's argument that it was entitled to terminate the 1977 Treaty on the ground that Czechoslovakia had violated its Articles 15, l9 and 20 (as well as a number of other conventions and rules of general international law); and that the planning, construction and putting into operation of Variant C also amounted to a material breach of the 1977 Treaty.

l06. As to that part of Hungary's argument which was based on other treaties and general rules of international law, the Court is of the view that it is only a material breach of the treaty itself, by a State party to that treaty, which entitles the other party to rely on it as a ground for terminating the treaty. The violation of other treaty rules or of rules of general international law may justify the taking of certain measures, including countermeasures, by the injured State, but it does not constitute a ground for termination under the law of treaties.

l07. Hungary contended that Czechoslovakia,had violated Articles 15, l9 and 20 of the Treaty by refusing to enter into negotiations with Hungary in order to adapt the Joint Contractual Plan to new scientific and legal developments regarding the environment. Articles 15, 19 and 20 oblige the parties jointly to take, on a continuous basis, appropriate measures necessary for the protection of water quality, of nature and of fishing interests.

Articles 15 and 19 expressly provide that the obligations they contain shall be implemented by the means specified in the Joint Contractual Plan. The failure of the parties to agree on those means cannot, on the basis of the record before the Court, be attributed solely to one party. The Court has not found sufficient evidence to conclude that Czechoslovakia had consistently refused to consult with Hungary about the desirability or necessity of measures for the preservation of the environment. The record rather shows that, while both parties indicated, in principle, a willingness to undertake further studies, in practice Czechoslovakia refused to countenance a suspension of the works at Dunakiliti and, later, on Variant C, while Hungary required suspension as a prior condition of environmental investigation because it claimed continuation of the work would prejudice the outcome of negotiations. In this regard it cannot be left out of consideration that Hungary itself, by suspending the works at Nagymaros and Dunakiliti, contributed to the creation of a situation which was not conducive to the conduct of fruitful negotiations.

108. Hungary's main argument for invoking a material breach of the Treaty was the construction and putting into operation of Variant C. As the Court has found in paragraph 79 above, Czechoslovakia violated the Treaty only when it diverted the waters of the Danube into the bypass canal in October l992. In constructing the works which would lead to the putting into operation of Variant C, Czechoslovakia did not act unlawfully.

In the Court's view, therefore, the notification of termination by Hungary on 19 May l992 was premature. No breach of the Treaty by Czechoslovakia had yet taken place and consequently Hungary was not entitled to invoke any such breach of the Treaty as a ground for terminating it when it did.

109. In this regard, it should be noted that, according to Hungary's Declaration of 19 May 1992, the termination of the 1977 Treaty was to take effect as from 25 May l992, that is only six days later. Both Parties agree that Articles 65 to 67 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, if not codifying customary law, at least generally reflect customary international law and contain certain procedural principles which are based on an obligation to act in good faith. As the Court stated in its Advisory Opinion on the Interpretation of the Agreement of 25 March 1951 between the WHO and Egypt (in which case the Vienna Convention did not apply):

"Precisely what periods of time may be involved in the observance of the duties to consult and negotiate, and what period of notice of termination should be given, are matters which necessarily vary according to the requirements of the particular case. In principle, therefore, it is for the parties in each case to determine the length of those periods by consultation and negotiation in good faith." (I.C.J. Reports 1980, p. 96, para. 49.)

The termination of the Treaty by Hungary was to take effect six days after its notification. On neither of these dates had Hungary suffered injury resulting from acts of Czechoslovakia. The Court must therefore confirm its conclusion that Hungary's termination of the Treaty was premature.

110. Nor can the Court overlook that Czechoslovakia committed the internationally wrongful act of putting into operation Variant C as a result of Hungary's own prior wrongful conduct. As was stated by the Permanent Court of International Justice:

"It is, moreover, a principle generally accepted in the jurisprudence of international arbitration, as well as by municipal courts, that one Party cannot avail himself of the fact that the other has not fulfilled some obligation or has not had recourse to some means of redress, if the former Party has, by some illegal act, prevented the latter from fulfilling the obligation in question, or from having recourse to the tribunal which would have been open, to him." (Factory at Chorzow, Jurisdiction, Judgment No. 8, 1927, P.C.I.J., Series A, No. 9, p. 31.)

Hungary, by its own conduct, had prejudiced its right to terminate the Treaty; this would still have been the case even if Czechoslovakia, by the time of the purported termination, had violated a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the Treaty.

111. Finally, the Court will address Hungary's claim that it was entitled to terminate the l977 Treaty because new requirements of international law for the protection of the environment precluded performance of the Treaty.

112. Neither of the Parties contended that new peremptory norms of environmental law had emerged since the conclusion of the 1977 Treaty, and the Court will consequently not be required to examine the scope of Article 64 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. On the other hand, the Court wishes to point out that newly developed norms of environmental law are relevant for the implementation of the Treaty and that the parties could, by agreement, incorporate them through the application of Articles 15, 19 and 20 of the Treaty. These articles do not contain specific obligations of performance but require the parties, in carrying out their obligations to ensure that the quality of water in the Danube is not impaired and that nature is protected, to take new environmental norms into consideration when agreeing upon the means to be specified in the Joint Contractual Plan.

By inserting these evolving provisions in the Treaty, the parties recognized the potential necessity to adapt the Project. Consequently, the Treaty is not static, and is open to adapt to emerging norms of international law. By means of Articles l5 and 19, new environmental norms can be incorporated in the Joint Contractual Plan.

The responsibility to do this was a joint responsibility. The obligations contained in Articles 15, 19 and 20 are, by definition, general and have to be transformed into specific obligations of performance through a process of consultation and negotiation. Their implementation thus requires a mutual willingness to discuss in good faith actual and potential environmental risks.

It is all the-more important to do this because as the Court recalled in its Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, "the environment is not an abstraction but represents the living space, the quality of life and the very health of human beings, including generations unborn" (I.C.J. Reports 1996, para. 29; see also paragraph 53 above).

The awareness of the vulnerability of the environment and the recognition that environmental risks have to be assessed on a continuous basis have become much stronger in the years since the Treaty's conclusion. These new concerns have enhanced the relevance of Articles 15, 19 and 20.

[pp. 68] 114. Finally, Hungary maintained that by their conduct both parties had repudiated the Treaty and that a bilateral treaty repudiated by both parties cannot survive. The Court is of the view, however, that although it has found that both Hungary and Czechoslovakia failed to comply with their obligations under the 1977 Treaty, this reciprocal wrongful conduct did not bring the Treaty to an end nor justify its termination. The Court would set a precedent with disturbing implications for treaty relations and the integrity of the rule pacta sunt servanda if it were to conclude that a treaty in force between States, which the parties have implemented in considerable measures and at great cost over a period of years, might be unilaterally set aside on grounds of reciprocal non-compliance. It would be otherwise, of course, if the parties decided to terminate the Treaty by mutual consent. But in this case, while Hungary purported to terminate the Treaty, Czechoslovakia consistently resisted this act and declared it to be without legal effect.

[p. 86 Decl. Rezek] 2. A commitment such as the bilateral 1977 Treaty cannot be subject to ordinary denunciation during performance; however, the Hungarian notification of 19 May 1992 was not an ordinary denunciation. It was made after both Parties had failed to fulfil their mutual obligations, Hungary by abandoning works for which it was responsible, Czechoslovakia by adopting Variant C. I consider the Note of 19 May 1992 to be the formal act of termination of a treaty which, for different reasons and on more than one previous occasion, each of the Parties had already repudiated. I therefore see here an unorthodox type of abrogation.

3. In my opinion, the rule pacta sunt servanda means that the treaty creates reciprocal rights between the parties on the basis of a convergence of interests, a pooling of sovereign wills which in all probability will continue to coincide over time. When, on both sides of the treaty process, there is a lack of rigour in doing what has been agreed, the commitment weakens and becomes vulnerable to formal repudiation by one of the parties, irrespective of the question of which party was the first to neglect its duties, and it hardly matters that the parties lacked rigour in different ways. Treaties derive their force from the will of the States which conclude them. They do not have an objective value which makes them sacred regardless of those common intentions.

[p. 210 D.O. Fleischhauer] I would disagree with the conclusion drawn by the majority based on the point in time at which Hungary made its notification of termination even if I shared - quod non - the view that Czechoslovakia violated the 1977 Treaty only in October 1992. What that view means is that the notification of termination was not warranted in May, as no breach of the Treaty had yet occurred (para. 108), but that when the damming of the Danube happened, in October, the event occurred too late as far as the Hungarian notification is concerned. This view amounts, in its practical consequence, to an extraordinary formalism: a unilateral legal act, the notification, is discounted because a certain event, although expected and foreseen, had not yet happened. The event happens, nothing else changes, but still legal effects of the earlier act are said not to arise as it had been premature. This approach to a matter of international law does not correspond to the requirements of good faith. As the Court has said:

"One of the basic principles governing the creation and performance of legal obligations, whatever their source, is the principle of good faith. Trust and confidence are inherent in international cooperation, in particular in an age when this co-operation in many fields is becoming increasingly essential." (Nuclear Tests (Australia v. France), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1974, p. 268, para. 46.)

If one regards - as the majority of the Court does - Hungary's notification of termination as premature, then one must also admit that it would have been possible for Hungary to withdraw this act and to substitute it later by a new notification of termination based on the events of October 1992. The principle of good faith requires that under such circumstances the defect of Hungary's original act, the, in the view of the Cour premature giving of its notification of termination of the 1977 Treaty, Us to be regarded as remedied once the missing factual event has occurred.

[pp. 213-214 D.O. Fleischhauer] I do not contest that Articles 65 to 67 may reflect certain procedural principles pertaining to customary law, but I do not think that Hungary's notification of termination contradicts these principles. In this respect, the delay of only six days provided for by Hungary for its notification to become effective should not be seen in isolation. In fact, Hungary transmitted its notification of termination a full six months after Czechoslovakia had proceeded to Variant C in November 1991. During that period Hungary - as shown above in the quotations from the diplomatic exchanges between the two Parties - did not cease to protest against the unilateral measures taken by Czechoslovakia and to ask that they be stopped. Hungary also pointed out that a continuation of these measures might put the fate of the 1977 Treaty into question:

"I am hopeful that the representatives of the Government and the Parliament of the Czech and Slovak Republic having regard to their historic responsibility will find an opportunity to take the above reasonable points of view into consideration. If this expectation proves to be futile, the Government of the Republic of Hungary would be compelled to review the consequences of the discontinuation of the negotiations, the fate of the 1977 interstate Treaty and the necessary counter-measures." (Hungarian Prime Minister to the Czechoslovak Prime Minister, 19 December 1991, Memorial of Hungary, Vol. 4, Ann. 70, p. 129.)

"If the Government of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic were to reject our proposals anyway and continue the work aimed at the diversion of the Danube, which is a serious breach of international law, then it will create a very difficult situation .... The Government of the Czech and Slovak Republic would thus be placing the Hungarian Government into a state of necessity forcing it to terminate the Treaty." (Hungarian Prime Minister to Czechoslovak Prime Minister, 26 February 1992, ibid., Ann. 75, p. 138.)

In these circumstances the fact that Hungary, in May 1992, gave only six days' notice cannot be regarded as contravening the requirements of good faith in the application of international law.