International Law and Environmental Protection

International Law and Environmental Protection

What is Environment?

The term environment is a very wide term it takes into account all those factors which directly or indirectly have bearing on the natural surroundings of human beings.

  • The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Environment, as “the entire range of external influence acting on an organism, both the physical and biological e., other organisms, forces of nature surrounding on individual.”

Why should we protect the environment?

We human beings have an excellent capability of changing the course of nature as per our needs and want which has greatly influenced and affected the environment implying physiography (mountains, plains, valley, etc.) and natural forests around the globe. The enormous advancement of science and industrialization resulting in economic development has incessantly degraded the environment. Along with industrialization – urbanization, overpopulation, and poverty also affect the environment.

It is very necessary to protect the environment so as to curb and decrease the amount of destruction caused due to a myriad of anthropogenic activities to the environment. It is a moral obligation on us humans to protect the environment from pollution and other activities which are leading to environmental degradation such as –

  • Global warming
  • Acid rain
  • Smog
  • Deforestation
  • Wildfires, etc.

For the sustainability of life on this planet, it is really necessary that the environment is protected. Unlike technology or other human-made material, the environment is not replaceable, for example, no technology can replace the ozone layer, to protect us from the harmful UV rays of the sun, if the ozone layer depletion continues and no action is taken to stop it, existence on this planet will become highly difficult. Moreover, we have to not just think about the present population but also about our future generation, even wildlife, and other living creatures.

International Law in respect of environmental protection

A good number of environmental problems and issues traverse national, other administrative boundaries, and many of the natural resources which are affected are examples of global concern. These transboundary challenges highlight the need for decision-making processes, management agreements, and procedures for dispute resolution that go beyond the borders of individual nation-states. They illustrate the requirement of creating administrative and legal structures capable of enabling ecologically and sustainable and socially acceptable development. In the late 1960s, the international community began to realize that an international approach to environmental issues is required.

International Environment Law is a branch of public international law concerned with the protection of the environment, control of pollution, and the depletion of natural resources under the framework of sustainable development, primarily through bilateral and multilateral agreements. There are three sources of IEL –

  • Customary International Law
  • International Treaties
  • Judicial decisions of International Courts

IEL covers topics such as –

  • Population
  • Biodiversity
  • Climate Change
  • Ozone Depletion
  • Toxic and hazardous substance
  • Air, land, sea, and transboundary water pollution
  • Conservation of marine resources
  • Desertification
  • Nuclear damage

Governance of IEL

The apex level of the UN body convened ever on the subject of environment is UN Environmental Assembly, it was opened on 23rd June 2014 at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. UNEA straight feeds into the General Assembly, it has a universal membership of all 193 member states along with other stakeholder groups. It has a widespread reach into the legislative, financial, and development areas, the new body presents a groundbreaking platform for leadership on global environmental policy.

Key Declaration

There are two major declarations on IEL, as follows –

  1. Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the 1972 Stockholm Declaration) – it is the first chief attempt considering the global human bearing on the environment, and an international attempt to address the challenge of conserving and enhancing the human environment. The Stockholm Declaration adopts mostly broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions. Two conventions were produced from the Stockholm Conference namely, the Declaration of the Conference on the Human Environment and the Action Plan.
  2. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – it is a short document put forth at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), which is known as the Rio Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration comprises 27 principles projected to guide future sustainable development around the world. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, and the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) was produced by this submit.

IEL Disputes and Judicial Remedies

As such there is no International Court dedicated to the environment, the environmental disputes are litigated before an extensive range of adjudicative bodies such as global, regional, and national, judicial, and arbitral. A number of multilateral environmental regimes have ‘non-compliance procedures’ which are typically non-judicial.

When there is a dispute among the States concerning IEL it can be heard in the International Court of Justice, provided that the States who are in dispute have declared that the ICJ has a compulsory jurisdiction. The ICJ only entertains the disputes between States: other non-state actors and individuals are not parties to a dispute. IEL disputes can also be heard in regional courts like the Court of Justice of the European Union. The disputes between States, non-States actors (like- individuals, communities, and corporations) can be heard in International Human Rights Courts such as the European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. IEL is often also invoked in disputes in national courts and tribunals.

A case law

Trail Smelter Arbitration case of 1938 and 1941, is one of the earliest IEL cases, the states involved in the dispute were the United States and Canada. The issue was over air pollution from a Canadian smelting factory. The pollution was blowing across the American-Canadian border, it destroyed the crops in the State of Washington. After a 15 years long international arbitration panel a key foundation of IEL was established namely the ‘polluter pays principle.’ The polluter pays principle, states that if pollution from one nation causes harm to another nation, then the state which is the polluter must pay for the damage caused.


Without the environment our existence is nothing, we all have to and should protect our environment. The International Laws set broad and detailed provisions for protecting the environment, which shall be followed by every State so as to ensure that the State is maintaining environmental protection within its boundary. It is even a basic human right, each human should have access to a safe environment. Anna Lindh (former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs) once said that global markets must be balanced by global values such as respect for human rights and international law, democracy, security, and sustainable economic and environmental development.

Author: Mansi Sharma,
Manav Rachna University and 3rd Year

2 thoughts on “International Law and Environmental Protection”

Leave a Comment