In June 1995, the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) was adopted, and this instrument remains the only legally binding waterbird Agreement in the CMS Family. However, while AEWA has been lauded as a very promising instrument, the concern has also been raised that the Agreement “has a large potential scope for the duplication of obligations, especially with regard to the protection of wetland habitats, given the operation of the Ramsar Convention”. The existing literature thus recognizes that overlap between AEWA and the Ramsar Convention is potentially problematic. It fails, however, to provide a detailed analysis of the nature of this overlap and the interplay between the provisions of the Agreement and the Convention, or of their respective roles in relation to waterbird conservation. This article’s primary objective is to present such an analysis and, in so doing, draw conclusions about the gaps that AEWA is able to fill in the Ramsar regime. The article’s subsidiary objectives are to make suggestions concerning the lessons that AEWA can draw from the experiences of the Ramsar Convention (and the critiques thereof); as well as the lessons that a comparison of the Convention and the Agreement offer concerning the roles, advantages, and disadvantages of ecosystem-based and species-based treaties more broadly.

To provide a framework against which to assess the extent to which the Ramsar Convention currently promotes the conservation of waterbirds and the areas in which AEWA makes – or has the potential to make – a unique contribution in relation to Ramsar, part II of the article outlines priority measures for achieving the effective long-term conservation of migratory waterbirds. Particular detail is provided regarding habitat conservation, since it is in this area that the provisions of the Agreement and the Convention experience the greatest overlap and in respect of which the most intricate analysis is therefore necessary in order to distinguish each treaty’s distinctive role. That AEWA has a more pronounced contribution to make than Ramsar in respect of threats that are unrelated to habitat is fairly obvious; though, as will be illustrated in the course of the article, the Convention’s provisions are also relevant in this regard and establish an important link to the Agreement. Part II, therefore, also briefly outlines the need to address threats that are not habitat-related, as well as to address gaps in knowledge. After an introduction to the Ramsar Convention and AEWA is presented in part III, parts IV to VI assess the manners in which the texts of, and the guidance, procedures, and institutions developed under, these two instruments provide for the measures identified in part II, and suggest various improvements that can be made in this regard. While other multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) are referred to where relevant, a full assessment of their contribution to waterbird conservation falls beyond the scope of this article.

Part VII highlights the need to make accession more appealing to developing countries and considers whether there are any lessons that AEWA can draw from the Ramsar Convention in this regard. Although the article does not attempt to present a comprehensive analysis of the current implementation status of AEWA and the Ramsar Convention, it does comment on the extent to which, and the manner in which, certain provisions are being implemented, as determined by the various monitoring mechanisms that are in place under each treaty. Finally, by unpacking the unique, though complementary, contributions of AEWA and the Ramsar Convention, the article provides a setting within which to reflect on the respective advantages and disadvantages of ecosystem-based and species-based treaties in general. The broader lessons that are offered by this comparison are therefore briefly considered in part VIII before conclusions are presented in part IX.