Publication Title

Michigan Law Review


international rivers

Document Type



Is the principle of free navigation, as applied to international rivers, relevant to present-day political and economic reality? Ordinarily, the first thing to be done in an article such as this is to define the principal term, i.e., "free navigation," or "navigational freedom." In this case it is impossible to give a single definition. The term, idea, concept, or rationale is a chameleon, changing its meaning from place to place and from time to time. A number of the following pages will be devoted to tracing these various meanings and showing the confusion that arises from their existence. Briefly, there are at least five major meanings that must be dealt with: (1) physical freedom of movement of vessels up and down a river, without regard to trading opportunities or access to port facilities; (2) physical freedom, plus complete laissez faire opportunity for trading among riparian countries; (3) physical freedom, plus the realistically limited trading opportunities of nineteenth century Europe; (4) physical freedom, plus the realistically limited trading opportunities of present-day western Europe; (5) physical freedom, plus the realistically limited trading opportunities of present-day eastern Europe. There is also confusion between the idea of navigational freedom on the one hand and the international commissions sometimes created to assure such freedom on the other. There are other meanings and submeanings to these terms, but those noted above are the most commonly encountered. No one, it seems, has ever successfully settled the definition, although the author has concluded that the most commonly intended meaning is number (2) above. In most instances authors simply fail to indicate which of the various meanings they intend. Unless otherwise indicated, the number (2) definition above will be used in this article. The purpose of this paper will be to analyze the origin of the concept, trace its (their) development, point out the most commonly used meanings, and then demonstrate the substantial irrelevance of the concept, by any of these definitions, to present-day river navigation and trade problems.



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