3. International Environmental Law

 3.The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio)

 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known commonly as ‘Rio’, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. It saw the adoption of an indicative policy framework intended to help achieve the goal of sustainable development in rich and poor countries alike, and afforded the foundations for agreements on climate change, forests and biodiversity.

Among the most important accomplishments of the Conference were the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a set of 27 principles on the environment and development designed to promote international co-operation for sustainable development, and Agenda 21, a comprehensive programme of action covering all areas of the environment.

In examining the Rio Declaration, its goal is the establishment of a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of co-operation among States, key sectors of societies and peoples, working towards international agreements that respect the interests of all and that protect the integrity of the global environmental and developmental system.

There are several key principles to the Declaration. The concepts of sovereignty and responsibility are guaranteed in Principle 2, which holds: States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the   principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

The integral role of environmental protection is established in Principle 4, which states that in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it. Further, the necessity for co-operation is recognised in Principle 7, which holds that States shall co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.

In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. In examining the importance of the activities of companies, whether local or multinational, on the environment, emphasis is placed on production and consumption in Principle 8, which states that to achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

Furthermore, international trade policies are of paramount importance, as outlined in Principle 12: States should co-operate to promote a supportive and open international economic system that would lead to economic growth and sustainable development in all countries, to better address the problems of environmental degradation. Trade policy measures for environmental purposes should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade …

Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.

Principle 13 establishes the concepts of liability and compensation in that States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage, and States shall also co-operate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle is emphasised in Principle 16, which holds: National authorities should endeavour to promote the internalisation of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment.

The importance of impact assessments is outlined in Principle 17, which states that: Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.

Finally, women, youth and indigenous peoples are seen as key parties in the Declaration in Principles 20, 21 and 22 respectively, which state that women have a vital role in environmental management and development, and their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development.

Further, the creativity, ideals and courage of the youth of the world should be mobilised to forge a global partnership in order to achieve sustainable development and ensure a better future for all. Finally, indigenous people and their communities, and other local communities, have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices, and States should recognise and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.

Further, in examining Agenda 21, it is stressed: Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can – in a global partnership for sustainable development.

In essence, Agenda 21 is a comprehensive plan of action that is global, national and local for United Nations organisations, governments and major interest groups such as Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (ENGOs) in every area impacting both humans and the environment. Overall, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development has been a major accomplishment for the environment.

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