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The Evolution Of International Environmental Law (IEL) sample essay

Trace the evolution of International Environmental Law (IEL). What does the rise of IEL signify in terms of community interests versus the egoistic interests of nation states?

The term ‘International Environmental Law’ can be used as a term to encompass the entire corpus of international law, public and private relevant to environmental issues or problems.[1] The modern rules of international environmental law can be traced back to a ‘spat’ between the United States and Britain. The first ever reported environmental dispute dates back to 1742.[2]

In the early 1970s environmental issues started to appear on the agenda of various United Nations and non United Nations agencies and this was, in part, due to the amount of publicity that was being devoted to the problems of environmental degradation.

In 1972, due to pressure from NGOs especially in the United States, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was convened. Preparations for this conference necessitated a thorough examination of activities that had any impact on the environment.[3]

Under United Nations General Assembly Resolutions in 1968 and 1969 which gave rise to the Conference, the assembly agreed that there was an urgent need for intensified action at national and international levels to limit and if possible, eliminate the impairment of the human environment and that this was necessary for sound economic and social development.[4] The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Report and the resultant 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development expressed the already existing concern for sustainable development.

Meanwhile, the dynamics of negotiations within these conferences changed with time. With decolonisation and the attainment of independence of more developing countries, more of these countries were joining the United Nations and other international Organisations. During negotiations, developing countries were insisting on radical changes to international economics relations that would bring about a situation that would be more conducive to the realization of their developmental goals.[5]

Financial Institutions such as the World Bank now structured and conditioned loans in such a way that development should always be ecologically sound.[6] By the 1990s, environmentalists were opposing strongly, the trade regime under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). This was inflamed by two decisions of the Dispute Resolution Mechanism. In the Tuna Dolphin case, GATT ruled against the U.S ban on tuna that was caught using mechanisms that killed dolphins as well. In the Shrimp Turtle case, the GATT ruled against an American law that was put in place to protect turtles that were sometimes killed in the process of catching shrimps.[7]

Now, the WTO rules are to be applied in such a way as to ensure the promotion of sustainable development so do the rules of many other international organisations. Under the various international environmental laws, companies are bound to respect environmental laws, they are bound for instance to conduct impact assessments on any project they wish to undertake.[8]

States are also bound to respect the environmental integrity not only of their state but also that of all other states. In the world of today, it is doubtful that the GATT Dispute Resolution Mechanism would give similar rulings as those that they gave in the Tuna Dolphin and Shrimp Turtle cases. The rise of International Environmental Law has meant that states can no longer pursue their own personal interests without having consideration for the environmental integrity of other states.

[1] Birnie and Boyle (2002) International Law and the Environment (2nd Edition) Pg. 2-3

[2] Sands (2005) Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules Pg 71

[3] Ibid Pg. 38

[4] United Nations General Assembly Resolutions XXIII of 1968 and XXIV of 1969

[5] Dadzie, in Roberts and Kingsbury (1993) United Nations, Divided World: The Un’s Role In International Relations (2ND Edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press Pg. 300

[6] Birnie and Boyle (2002) International Law and the Environment (2nd Edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press Pg. 60

[7] Giplin (2001) Global Political Economy: Understanding The International Economic Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pg. 226

[8] Article 4 Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in Transboundary Context

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