Gabcikovo Dam Dispute

Gabcikovo Dam

Gabcikovo Dam

The Gabcikovo Dam Project was started in 1977 under the auspice of a international treaty between Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. The goal was to dam the Danube, all the way from Bratislava to Budapest, providing for a tremendous amount of clean hydro-electric energy. In 1989, Hungary unilaterally suspended work on their portion of the project citing unspecified ecological concerns. Czechoslovakia did not conclude the dispute with Hungary and in 1993 the International Court of Justice, a United Nations organ, was called in to arbitrate.


Schematic Map of Project

Schematic Map of Project

The project extended from Gabcikovo, Slovakia, all the way to Nagymaros, Hungary.

It is important to acknowledge that utilizing energy plants has certain environmental consequences. Coal, nuclear, and diesel generators as well as hydro-electric dams all have their drawbacks. Hence, Hungary's invocation of environmental concerns is problematic precisely because the fundamental question of how electric energy will be produced without ecological drawbacks is ignored. The project, if completed, would lessen each country's reliance on fossil fuel and nuclear energy, both of which have substantially more devastating environmental effects. Indeed, if Slovakia cannot harness hydro-electric energy, nuclear energy nor coal-burning energy, then it has no realistic way to meet its energy requirements.

Despite legitimate environmental concerns, the real issue behind the dispute centers around the complex political situation in this area. In effect, since Hungary's energy policy had changed (it no longer required the energy that would be generated by the dam because it had commenced other energy projects) after the project's inception it was only common sense that harnessing of the Danube be abandoned. However, a blatant desertion of the project would be viewed negatively in the international community and would bring about questions of financial liability. Using the issue of environmentalism as political cover, Hungary's government decided on an expedient solution: blame their unilateral stoppage on environmental concerns.

What's more disturbing is that Hungary, under the pretext of ecological concerns, has used the dispute to further its international political ends. It has used the cancellation of the dam to leverage its position in influencing the outcome of position of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. It has become increasingly clear that "realpolitik" had more to do with Hungary not cooperating with Slovakia than environmental hazards.

The Gabcikovo dam, similar to damming projects sanctioned by international organizations all over the globe, is the most sound solution, both economically and environmentally, given the limited resources of the area. Surely, no environmentalist would suggest that replacing highly polluting coal or petrol plants, or even nuclear plants which are wrought with danger and produce highly toxic waste, with non-polluting hydro electric energy is a step backward. Indeed, other neighbors such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland have actively encouraged Slovakia toward a more environmentally friendly energy policy, that includes hydro-electricity.

International Court of Justice Ruling

The ICJ (International Court of Justice) ruled against Hungary on September 25, 1997 in respect to the unilateral suspension of the project:

In the light of the conclusions reached above, the Court finds that Hungary was not entitled to suspend and subsequently abandon, in 1989, the works on the Nagymaros Project and on the part of the Gabckovo Project for which the 1977 Treaty and related instruments attributed responsibility to it.

And that Slovakia (then still part of Czechoslovakia) did the right thing by proceeding with the project in 1991, but not in 1992 after clear notification:

In the light of the conclusions reached above, the Court finds that Czechoslovakia was entitled to proceed, in November 1991, to Variant C in so far as it then confined itself to undertaking works which did not predetermine the final decision to be taken by it. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia was not entitled to put that Variant into operation from October 1992.

The Hungarians argued that because Czechoslovakia was dissolved, the treaties between the the new state of Slovakia and Hungary were void. The court found this patently absurd:

The Court therefore concludes that the 1977 Treaty became binding upon Slovakia on 1 January 1993.

Hungary also argued that it could terminate the treaty by mere notification, this was again, found in clear violation of international law:

The termination of the Treaty of 16 September 1977 and related instruments by Hungary did not have the legal effect of terminating them.

Finally, the court prescribed this rather ambiguous solution:

Hungary and Slovakia must negotiate in good faith in the light of the prevailing situation, and must take all necessary measures to ensure the achievement of the objectives of the Treaty of 16 September 1977.

Thus the Gabcikovo Dam Project has to be completed, albeit with some modifications in respect to unilateral actions of both parties.

Votes in these proceedings overwhelmingly favored Slovakia and in some cases were unanimous, except for the Hungarian judge who dissented. Yet, Slovakia and Hungary have again come to loggerheads over a proposed solution, with Hungary refusing to complete any part of the dam. At the time of the ruling Prime Minster Horn of Hungary accepted the court's judgment to complete the project. Unfortunately, since he was defeated in an election the new government has repealed his decrees contravening both custom and the spirit of international co-operation.

Since there is no way to enforce the ruling, Hungary can, and has, ignored the judgment knowing full well that no sanctions will be forthcoming. Slovakia, as a result, is faced with a partially finished project as well as unsettled debts.

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