International river commissions

  • • The Congress ofVienna
  • • The Rhine Commission
  • • The Danube Commission
  • • Conclusion

There are good arguments to see international organization (singular, as it refers to a process) as related to a distinct phase in world politics, which started upon the end of the Congress ofVienna in 1815. The Congress established the first IGO in the form of an international river commission and a system of conferences and followup conferences that were later institutionalized into IGOs with secretariats.

The Congress of Vienna

The great powers in Vienna recognized that the state system as it had developed up to then was no longer adequate and that they had to seek new institutional arrangements. Napoleon Bonaparte had upset the European balance of power with his campaigns of conquest but, after a lost battle in 1814, the (first) Treaty of Paris ended the Napoleonic Wars and restored French borders. Other matters were to be completed at the Congress ofVienna in the hope that a proper balance would also produce a lasting peace. According to Inis Claude, the prerequisites for the development of IGOs were available in sufficient measure and in the right combination: states functioning as independent political units; a substantial measure of contact between them; an awareness of the problems which arose out of their coexistence; and recognition of the need to create institutional devices and systematic methods for regulating their relations with each other.1 John Ikenberry added the role of the hegemon through its strategy of institutional binding at historical junctions after major wars, with Great Britain acting as the then new hegemon. Binding mechanisms, such as treaties, interlocking organizations, joint management responsibilities, and agreed-upon standards and principles, raised the ‘costs of exit’ and created ‘voice opportunities’ for the participating states, thereby providing mechanisms to mitigate or resolve conflicts.2 The main economic debate in Vienna accepted the principle of free navigation of international rivers. The result was an IGO for the Rhine meant to remove tolls and other obstacles along this and other rivers and make them suited to modern water transport. The principles and uniform arrangements were laid down in the Final Act of the Congress ofVienna (articles 108-117), with more specific articles about the Rhine in Appendix 16B and about some other rivers in Appendix 16C. The Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine came into existence in June 1815, with its seat in the German city of Mainz.

The Rhine Commission

At the core of the Rhine Commission, the idea of an international public administration dated back to the 1804 Octroi Convention on the navigation of the Rhine between France and the Holy Roman (German) Empire, signed in August 1804 and ratified in May 1805. The states regarded the river as common to them both so far as navigation was concerned, with a common toll system and police administration.3 Although one state is missing to comply with the generally accepted IGO criterion of three or more states, Octroi Convention’s articles 42-89 created a small international bureaucracy, with both states responsible for appointing the director-general and equal numbers of inspectors and toll agents in bureaus along the river. The director-general supervised toll collection, inspected towpaths, and issued provisional new regulations.4 He was not responsible to his government but to “the governments as a collective organization signatory to the treaty.”’’ The man who designed the bureaucratic infrastructure meant to implement the Octroi Convention and issue new regulations, such as procedures for legal appeals and dispute settlement, was Charles Etienne Coquebert de Montbret. First charged with the negotiations with the German Empire in 1803, he became director-general of the Octroi in 1805. When he was awarded a new role in France in 1806, he made German inspector Johann Eichhoff his successor. Eichhoff continued the institutional dynamics and was director-general until 1814, when he attended the Congress ofVienna and its Commission for Navigation as an expert. There he observed the politicians move the core of the Octroi practices to the Central Commission they were creating.

The seven governmental representatives to the new Rhine Commission, which took over the seat and bureaus pertaining to the Octroi along the river, had to learn how to cooperate in a multilateral setting. They needed 17 years and some 550 meetings to issue the Commission’s first constitution, the 1831 Convention of Mainz. They had to clarify the exact interpretation of all legal clauses and to overcome the strong articulation of national interests, particularly by The Netherlands and Prussia. However, they maintained several sub-bureaucracies which had to be coordinated, such as those of the Rhine inspectors, the revenue stations, and the central accounting office. The commissioners met once a year, elected a president each year, and proposed provisions that required ratification by member states.The 1831 Convention then vested both legislative and judicial powers in an enlarged Commission. The newly created ‘chief inspector’ was an international functionary, as he was appointed by the Commission through a system of weighted voting for the member states, paid from a common treasury, and sworn to obey Commission rules. Publications about the Rhine Commission have mentioned names of commissioners, but rarely the chief inspector’s name (J.B. von Auer). The Commission functioned with a modest group of international staff, but it hired much larger groups of local personnel to maintain and improve waterways, towpaths, and ports and to prevent obstruction of navigation.6 Spaulding mentions up to several hundred government employees from individual member states.7 Litigation on “matters concerning navigation, duties, collision, and so forth could be taken on appeal from the courts established by the states for such cases” to either the appellate national court or the Commission, with the Commission receiving 61 appeals from the Rhine Courts between 1832 and 1868.8 Judges for the Rhine Courts were appointed nationally, but took an oath to apply the Rhine regulations unrestricted by local jurisprudence.9

‘Incremental decision making’ and ‘path dependence’ resulted in dozens of regulatory directives, twenty supplementary articles to the 1831 Convention, and an agreement on common police procedures. A change in power relations between Austria and Prussia resulted in the 1868 Convention of Mannheim (the new seat), which abolished the chief inspectorship, as all tolls had been removed, but not the other international staff, and it maintained the role of the Commission in passing resolutions to improve navigation and hearing appeals from the Rhine Courts: 216 cases between 1869 and 1911. Commission decisions were formally taken by an “absolute plurality of votes,” but practice was more flexible, for instance, by taking into account the lengths of the riverbanks, as those better represented the interests of the riparian states, and ongoing negotiations until all parties could agree.10

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