Author: Rama Gandhi, NMIMS School Of Law


As far as specialization is concerned, international law has come a long way from its origins in the application of broad principles.Not only has the number of specializedbodies, instruments and institutions grown under it, but sub-specialties have also developed within. The most important being, environment. This article takes stock of international law with respect to environment and examines its overarching features.It also puts emphasis on how our international law looks at environment as it is a sensitive topic and prioritizes the same.In particular, it discusses some distinctive features of international environmental problems, the state-centric approach to international environmental law, environmental protection, and compliance.

International law is a system of treaties and agreements between nations that regulates how nations deal with other nations, residents of other nations, and corporations of other democracies. Since then the UN Charter has played a crucial role in the growth and respect for international law. The UN Charter, which is as an international treaty gives these rights. The United Nations Charter codifies the basic principles of international affairs, starting from the principle of sovereign justice between States to prohibition of force in international relations.[1]

The destruction of ecosystems and the exploitation of wild flora and fauna were the first environmental issues to receive widespread international attention. There was this NGO (non-government organization) called World Conservation Union that was committed to the conservation of environment and initiated steps towards the same. While conservation movements emerged in many countries in the 19th century, it was only the climate that these movements usually tackled within one country. Due to the illustrated global environmental concern and stresses, the International Law emphasized on the need for a multinational solution to environmental issues. Scientific analysis indicates that air and water contamination, overfishing and others led to consequences well beyond the boundaries of any region, which is why the International Law recognized and acknowledged the need for an international solution to these alarming issues. Ever since then, the International Law has made environment as the top- most priority due to its rising sensitivity.

Environment has been an ever-changing, constantly expanding, and intriguing topic for international legal research. Due to the enormity of this area, the International Law shortlisted alarming concerns, a few of which include the environmental sub-issues of population, ecology, global climate change, ozone depletion, protecting the Antarctic areas, transport of harmful and dangerous chemicals, land or vessel-based emissions, dumping, protection of aquatic living resources, trans-boundary air and water pollution, deforestation, and nuclear disruption, among others.[2]When decisions and alliances are made by countries across international frontiers and co-operation arrangements or agreements for environmental issues, conflicts are invariably triggered by trade consequences for the respective countries, protection issues and clean environmental capital between shared borders or by problems with liability compliance mechanisms.

The International Law emphasized on the need for a separate body to assess and monitor, to keep a check and tackle the environment- related issues as environmental risks became more apparent and their assessment and management more complex. In 1972, only a few dozen multilateral deals were signed, and most countries ignored laws on the climate. Hundreds of multilateral and bilateral environmental arrangements are in effect now, and all countries have one or more laws and/or rules relating to the environment. The developments in this area are only because back then, the International Law saw this as a sensitive topic and prioritized to tackle the same.[3]

Initially very few international treaties concerned international environmental concerns. International law was the dominant norm and national jurisdiction over natural resources in the territories of a nation prevailed. The few international arrangements were mostly restricted fishing rights, waters, navigation. They did not bother with emissions concerns with a few exceptions. Looking at these growing concerns within the agreement and treaties, the International Law decided to give environment a separate governing body to tackle these issues efficiently as the body would wholly be environment- centric.

The goal is to track emissions and the degradation, in a sense of sustainable development of natural resources. It is an international public law branch – a law-making body formed by States to control problems occurring between States. Furthermore, the climate has become deeply intertwined into economic growth, human rights, commerce and national security. The study of international environmental law trends allows one to consider the opportunities and limits of law to tackle environmental challenges, whether global, regional or local.

Concerns have also come to be voiced with respect to the fragmentation of international environmental law itself. Indeed, an expert on the law of marine environmental protection might find it difficult to navigate an air pollution agreement. Similarly, an expert on the rules governing carbon sinks may have trouble communicating with an expert on international emissions trading, notwithstanding the fact that both issues fall under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

International environmental legislation is also faced with the argument that it represents rather than developing countries’ interests and that it rearranges only certain patterns of colonial colonialism from an environmental point of view. Just like colonial powers continued to treat “outlying properties” as resource providers – areas in which it “were convenient for production of sucrose, coffee and a few other tropical commodities”– some of the early conservation treaties also removed indigenous people from these reserves, even though they concerned with protecting flora and fauna in Africa.[4] Thus, even though laws and agreements have been made, there is still a long way to go and make difference.


[1]Lakshman D Guruswamy, International Environmental Law in a Nutshell (West, 5th ed, 2017).




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