Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 22: Latin-American Water Tribunal: Using National and International Law to Form a Basis of Water Ethics


How can we create a set of shared ethics around the water commons? In an international context where injustice runs across societies and where legal tribunals frequently turn their backs on the poor and favor the powerful, an ethics tribunal - or hearing - can uncover crimes against equitable and sustainable use of water and affirm our more inclusive values. Ethics tribunals operate in similar ways to normal tribunals: they gather evidence, use the law and read verdict. Yet they use international law, which is sometimes ignored by regular tribunals. While their resolutions are not legally binding, the attention of the national and international community as well as the press to these hearings is crucial to generate pressure to trigger change. ******* The Latin American Water Tribunal (TLA in Spanish) is an autonomous, independent and international environmental justice organization created to help solve water related conflicts in Latin America and build a practical and moral framework for how best to manage the world’s water. Its work is based on principles such as the balanced coexistence with nature, respect for human dignity, and solidarity among peoples for the preservation of the region’s water systems. The TLA is committed to preserving the water commons for future generations and to guaranteeing access to water as a human right. Its legitimacy derives from the moral nature of its resolutions and the juridical fundamentals they are based on. Covenants, declarations, and international agreements affirming the protection of the environment undergird this institution’s operation. Since its creation in 1998, first as the Central American Water Tribunal, there have been four international public hearings in which organizations have denounced business and government violations of the right to safe water and the pollution of water bodies. Although the resolutions are not legally binding, they have technical and scientific grounding and aim to serve as tools to solve water conflicts. The TLA’s decisions are based in ecology; they challenge anthropocentric thinking about water which leaves nature without its fair share. While the TLA can be a powerful tool to advance the water commons, it cannot achieve a great deal on its own. The water conflicts that are presented for deliberation require community and NGO follow-up, the support of the international community and a legal strategy in traditional tribunals. The resolution of the TLA can add strength to a combined legal and organizing strategy. For instance, in the case of the La Parota dam – a dam that the Mexican government intends to build in the state of Guerrero – the TLA delivered a verdict that the project ought to be cancelled because of its negative social and environmental consequences. The Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural rights of the United Nations affirmed parts of the TLA resolution and included it in their concluding observations (E/C.12/MEX/CO/4). This resolution thus offered the general public a better understanding of the problem and provided scientific and technical arguments with which to pressure the Mexican government. However, at the time of this writing, the dam is still planned, and a great deal of complementary organizing and legal work remains to be done.


  • How can an ethical tribunal further specific cases to protect water as a commons?
  • What complementary work must be done to ensure implementation of tribunal findings?

Notes and Links