World's Oldest International Treaty

Updated: May 7

Environmental dispute resolution 4,500 years ago: The Case of Lagash v Umma


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.


The 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, making it ‘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.


Fragments of the artifacts were excavated from 1881 onwards by French, British, German, Italian, and American archaeologists at sites in the ancient temple-city of Girsu, which was once the capital of Lagash, and at Tell Joˆkha, the former capital of Umma.


Mesilim 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, and the dispute primarily concerned water resources.


Because of the prevailing precarious rainfall conditions, the agricultural economy of the Mesopotamian delta area (the ‘land between the rivers’) has always been crucially dependent on irrigation, from the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, through an elaborate system of canals and levees that inevitably require close inter-community cooperation. Mesopotamian civilizations therefore developed early customary practices for the use of shared water resources and irrigation works. But, for a period 4,500 years ago, relationships got ugly.


In several successive military confrontations over forty years (‘the first known war in history that was, in essence, fought about water’), Umma was ultimately defeated by Lagash and was forced to accept the reconstruction (and extension) of a canal and the reinstatement of the boundaries as originally drawn up by Mesilim and demarcated by limestone pillars.


The agreement has been hailed as ‘the first international arbitration.’

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