Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Environmental dispute resolution 4,500 years ago

Fragment of the Stele of the Vultures, c. 2450 BCE
The latest Yearbook of International Environmental Law has an interesting contribution by Peter Sand, "Environmental Dispute Resolution 4,500 Years Ago: The Case of Lagash v Umma". Sand begins:

Legal historians sometimes contend—albeit tongue-in-cheek—that ‘environmental law has no history’ or that the origins of international treaty law in this field, at any rate, hardly date back more than two centuries. It is true of course that the very term ‘environmental law’ etymologically did not come into use, in any language, until the mid-twentieth century. Yet it is equally true that the earth’s natural resources have been a subject of claims for human exploitation and societal management (including law) for millennia before, as this brief note will aim to illustrate.

(The first quote is from my own chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Legal History, "Historical Analysis in Environmental Law". Let me note that I meant this contention not tongue-in-cheek but in the sense more felicitously captured by Éric Naim-Gesbert, cited by Sand: environmental law has a past without a history. See the abstract of my chapter.)

Sand continues (footnotes omitted):

The Musée du Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London hold tangible evidence of the world’s first known legal agreement on boundary water resources—that is, the Mesilim Treaty, which was concluded in approximately 2550 BC between the two Mesopotamian states of Lagash and Umma—‘the oldest international treaty of which there is a reliable record.’ The terms of the treaty have been preserved in cuneiform inscriptions on limestone cones and a ‘stele’ commemorating Lagash’s victorious battle enforcing the interstate agreement....

Mesilim (or Me-salim, born circa 2600 BC) was the ruler of Kish, a kingdom further to the north of Lagash and Umma, which held a traditional ‘hegemonial’ position in the loose alliance of small neighbouring Sumerian states in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, south of what was to become Babylon. In that capacity, he served as arbiter in a protracted dispute between the two city states of Lagash and Umma, and it is the text of the arbitral award attributed to him, accepted under oaths by the litigants to their respective deities, that then appears as Mesilim’s rules in the cuneiform inscriptions preserved. The main subject of the award was the inter-state boundary between the two states, alongside a major irrigation canal.... The dispute concerned both water resources (with Umma upstream and Lagash downstream) and a strip of adjoining agricultural land in the fertile Guedin valley... that was cultivated by Umma under lease from Lagash for barley production.

Sand goes on to describe the breakdown of the treaty and compare it to the modern Lake Lanoux Arbitration and ensuing agreements. More on this in an earlier guest post by Sand here.

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