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Public International Law

What is International Environmental Law? 

International Environmental Law (IEL) is concerned with the attempt to control pollution and the depletion of natural resources within a framework of sustainable development. It is a branch of public international law - a body of law created by states for states to govern problems that arise between states.

IEL covers topics such as population, biodiversity, climate change, ozone depletion, toxic and hazardous substances, air, land, sea and transboundary water pollution, conservation of marine resources, desertification, and nuclear damage.

(Source: Lakshman D Guruswamy, International Environmental Law in a Nutshell (West, 5th ed, 2017)). For more information and a good introduction to the topic, see:

International Environmental Law Governance

The UN Environment Assembly - the highest-level UN body ever convened on the environment - opened on 23 June 2014 at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. UNEA feeds directly into the General Assembly and has universal membership of all 193 UN member states as well as other stakeholder groups. With this wide reach into the legislative, financial and development arenas, the new body presents a ground-breaking platform for leadership on global environmental policy.

Key Declarations & Treaties 

Two major declarations on international environmental law are:

  1. The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (the 1972 Stockholm Declaration) (UN Doc. A/CONF/48/14/REV.1 (1972). This declaration represented a first major attempt at considering the global human impact on the environment, and an international attempt to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment. The Stockholm Declaration espouses mostly broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions. The UN website provides introductory information, procedural history and preparatory documents associated with the Declaration, as well as the full text of the Declaration.
  2. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development  (UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26 (vol. I))  was a short document produced at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the Rio Earth Summit. The Rio Declaration consists of 27 principles intended to guide future sustainable development around the world. 

In 2012 the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit was commemorated by the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

A useful and concise summary of the importance and impact of the Stockholm and Rio declarations can be found on the UN website.


Customary law and general principles relating to the environment, such as the 'precautionary principle' and sustainable development, are evolving but it is arguable whether any have yet become normative rules. The speed with which awareness of global environmental problems has reached the international political agenda has meant that customary law has tended to take second place to treaty law in the evolution of legal norms, and treaties have been the main method by which the international community has responded to the need to regulate activities which threaten the environment. There are hundreds of bilateral and multilateral environmental treaties creating states' rights and obligations. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development have negotiated many of these treaties. 

A full list of international environmental law treaties can be found on Wikipedia. This is arranged alphabetically and also by subject.

A few major treaties are listed below, but the full text of all IEL treaties can be found on:

  • ECOLEX, a free online gateway to environmental law treaties; and
  • ENTRI (Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators)  - the Treaty Locator allows sophisticated searching of the full text of all treaties. ENTRI also contains treaty status information.

Treaties generally concern one of the following broad subjects:  toxic and hazardous substances, nuclear damage, ocean and marine sources, ozone and protection of the atmosphere, pollution, biodiversity and the protection and conservation of species and wildlife, sustainable development, and trade and the environment. The Globalex Guide on International Environmental Legal Research provides a useful table of these subjects together with links to the agreements and relevant agencies. Descriptions of the major environmental treaties by subject can also be found on the ILO website.

Many of the major treaties have their own websites, containing convention documentation such as backgrounds to the conventions, draft articles and travaux preparatoires, convention protocols and national reports.

 The UN Audiovisual Library of International Law website lists the following major IEL treaties, and provides the full text of the treaties and travaux, together with useful introductory summaries:

Treaties to which Australia is a party - free full-text treaties

The Australian Treaty Database on the DFAT website can be searched by subject and lists all environmental treaties to which Australia is a party, as well as information about the treaty process and adoption into domestic law.

The Australian Treaty Series on AustLII contains Environment and Resources Treaties, which can be searched or browsed by subject.

Database of Primary Materials

Climate Change and Law Collection (on the BRILL Primary Sources Platform)

This collection of documents comprises ‘grey literature’ in English. It includes PDF replicas of documents in any discipline of law which addresses climate change, including corporate law, environmental law and human rights law. Literature in the collection originates from a worldwide range of organisations and institutions. The collection is edited by the Human Rights Internet in Ottawa. It contains documents from 2015 onwards and is updated annually.

The collection can be searched or browsed by broad topic, and then narrowed by eg: place and date.

Tip: the database works best in Firefox.

International Environmental Law Disputes & Judicial Remedies 

There is no international court for the environment. Environmental disputes have been litigated before a wide range of adjudicative bodies - global and regional, judicial and arbitral. Many multilateral environmental regimes have 'non-compliance procedures' which are typically non-judicial. (Source: Cesare Pr Romano, 'The Shadow Zones of International Judicialization' in Oxford handbook of international adjudication (OUP, 2014) 105-6)

Disputes between States concerning international environmental law can be heard in the International Court of Justice (provided the dispute is between States that have declared that the ICJ has compulsory jurisdiction). The ICJ is a court of general jurisdiction that provides Advisory Opinions and decides contententious cases. Full text ICJ IEL decisions can be found on ECOLEX (open access). Inter-State litigation is based on the remedial principle of 'State Responsibility' or international tort law. THE ICJ is only able to determine disputes between States: individuals and other non-state actors are not able to be parties to a dispute.

Environmental protection disputes between States and non-state actors such as individuals, communities and corporations can also be heard in international human rights courts such as the European Court of Human Rights and the African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights. IEL decisions from human rights courts are available on ECOLEX.

IEL Civil Society websites

 FIELD (Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development) – Reports of FIELD projects, papers, annual reports, and books and other publications.

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

International Law Association - Committee on Sustainable Development

 OECD Environment Directorate – Statistics, publications & documents, and information by country for topics in international environmental law.

UN Division for Sustainable Development (DSD)

UNESCO Water Portal – Resources for international water law and links to news, events, and recent publications.

World Resources Institute – Resources for environmental law by research topic, data tables from EarthTrends, and other publications by research area of interest.

'One Stop Shop' IEL Research

Ecolex - the Gateway to Environmental Law. This open-access online database provides full-text access to treaties and environmental law cases in international courts, and an index to books and journal articles on international environmental law topics. It also includes domestic legislation and cases. The sophisticated search engine allows searching on multiple criteria. 

Finding IEL Treaties 

The full text of all IEL treaties can be found on the following open access platforms:

  • ENTRI (Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators)  - the Treaty Locator allows sophisticated searching of the full text of all treaties. ENTRI also contains treaty status information; and
  • The International Environmental Agreements (IEA) Database Project, hosted by the University of Oregon, describes more than 3,700 international environmental treaties, conventions, and other agreements from the 1850s to the present. It includes detailed pages for each agreement, which links to text, membership, performance data, secretariat, and summary statistics. The database can be searched and browsed by title, date, subject, lineage etc. It also lists relevant secondary sources by topic.

Environmental Performance Index 

NASA's Environmental Treaties and Resources Indicators database contain comprehensive information on country participation in multilateral environmental agreements up until August 2012. The database has a sophisticated search engine which can be interrogated using multiple criteria. 


Kluwer Law's International Encyclopaedia of Laws: Environmental Law has an encyclopaedic entry for international environmental law (University of Melbourne staff & student access only).

The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law IEL category provides a comprehensive and authoritative overview of all aspects of IEL and is a great starting point for your research. Each entry in the Encyclopaedia is linked via the Oxford Law Citator to other relevant entries in the Encyclopaedia and to relevant decisions in international courts in the Oxford Reports on International Law. (University of Melbourne staff & student access only).

Oxford Bibliographies Online - International Law provides authoritative research guides combining encyclopaedic entries and annotated bibliographies on all aspects of international environmental law. (University of Melbourne staff & student access only).

New Print & E-Books on International Environmental Law 

IEL print books are located on Level 5 of the Law Library at KC 243.

International Environmental Law Journals & Yearbooks 

The Law Library has access to many prints and electronic IEL journals and yearbooks, some of which are listed below. To find others, search the Library's catalogue, using keywords such as 'international environmental law', and restricting your search to 'magazine, serial or periodical'.

However, the best way to find scholarly and law review articles on your IEL topic is to do keyword searches in databases that include hundreds of law journals and yearbooks. For a list of relevant databases, refer to How to find articles on international law on the Journals page in this Guide. 

The links below will take you to the catalogue records from where the full text of the journals can be accessed. 



Recent Open Access Articles, Research Papers & Book Chapters on SSRN

Carlarne, Cinnamon Piñon and Mohamed Helal,  'A Conversation about Climate Change Law and the "International Community"' (2018) 8 Climate Law

Mayer, Benoit, 'Climate Impact Assessment as an Emerging Obligation Under Customary International Law' (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2018-16, 2018)

Meguro, Maiko, 'A Retreat from Universality in International Environmental Law? Law's Limbo between Universality and Particularity' (Amsterdam Center for International Law No 2018-12)

Cittadino, Federica, 'Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development within the International Biodiversity Regime' in Beatriz Felipe Pérez, Daniel Iglesias Márquez and Lorena Martínez Hernández (eds), Rethinking Sustainable Development in Terms of Justice: Issues of Theory, Law and Governance (Cambridge Scholars, 2018) 

Costi, Alberto and Ross, Nathan Jon, 'The Ongoing Legal Status of Low-Lying States in the Climate-Changed Future' (2017) in Caroline Morris and Petra Butler (eds) Small States in a Legal World (Springer 2017) 

CITES Trade Datasets & Dashboards 

The following databases are maintained by the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) on behalf of the CITES Secretariat

The CITES Trade Database (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) contains information about trade-in CITES-listed wildlife and wildlife products since 1975. The database holds over 13 million records of trade and includes information such as the year of the shipment' the scientific name of the plant or animal, the type and quantity of the item being traded, their purpose and source, and the country of origin, export, and export. The full dataset can be downloaded, and there is detailed information on using the database. citesdb is an R package for analysing the full CITES Trade Database. See here for more information on downloading the data and using the R package. 

CITES Contracting Parties provide annual reports to the Convention, including full details of all export and import permits and certificates issued during the previous year. The CITES Trade Data Dashboards are an interactive way to view the trade data submitted in these annual reports. The Global dashboard displays global trade trends, arranged by taxonomic group, and the National dashboard shows information by country. 

For more global environment datasets and online tools, see the UN-WCMC Resources & Data website.

Climate Change & Law Collection 

Climate Change and Law Collection - on the BRILL Primary Sources Platform (UniMelb staff & student access)

This collection of documents comprises ‘grey literature’ in English. It includes PDF replicas of documents in any discipline of law which addresses climate change, including corporate law, environmental law and human rights law. Literature in the collection originates from a worldwide range of organisations and institutions. The collection is edited by the Human Rights Internet in Ottawa. It contains documents from 2015 onwards and is updated annually.

The collection can be searched or browsed by broad topic, and then narrowed by eg: place and date.

Tip: the database works best in Google Chrome.