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Public International Law (ARCHIVE): International Environmental Law

This guide will help you find resources for researching public international law.

INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL 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

Declarations

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.
  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. 

The UN Audiovisual Library of International Law website provides introductory information, a concise summary of the importance and impact of the Stockholm and Rio declarations, the procedural history and preparatory documents of both Declarations, as well as the full text of the Declarations.

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

 

Treaties

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.

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. 

Many of the major treaties have their own websites (listed below), 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.

See also the following book:

International Environmental Law Disputes & Judicial Remedies

There is no international court for the environment. Environmental disputes are litigated before a wide range of adjudicative bodies - global, regional and national, and 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 (ICJ), 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. 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 law disputes can also be heard in regional courts such as the Court of Justice of the European Union.

  • Some full text ICJ and Court of Justice of the European Union IEL decisions can be found in the Jurisprudence database on ECOLEX (open access). To search the jurisprudence of these courts comprehensively, use the search engines of these courts. For the ICJ, see the Cases page in the Public International Law Guide, and for the Court of Justice of the European Union, see the Cases page in the EU Research Guide.

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 (use the Caselaw database) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. See more on these courts and how to find cases in the Human Rights Research Guide, in the Regional pages.

International environmental law is also often invoked in disputes in national courts and tribunals. ECOLEX has a selection of such cases in its Jurisprudence database, but to search comprehensively, use caselaw databases for the individual national jurisdictions.

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 world wide 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.

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)

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, regional and national 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. 

InforMEA is the United Nations Information Portal on Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). It is a one-stop portal for information on MEAs - searchable by key terms across treaty texts, COP decisions, national plans and reports, laws, court decisions and more.

Finding IEL Treaties

The full text of all IEL treaties can be found on the International Environmental Agreements (IEA) Database Project, hosted by the University of Oregon. This database includes more than 1300 Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and over 2,200 Bilateral Environmental Agreements (BEAs) 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.

Encyclopaedias

Kluwer Law's International Encyclopaedia of Laws: Environmental Law includes a book on international environmental law (UniMelb staff & student access). It also includes national chapters for over 50 countries - see the National Reports heading.

The Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law - the International Environmental Law subject provides comprehensive and authoritative overviews of all aspects of IEL and is a great starting point for your research. Use the menu on the left hand side to narrow to specific topics eg: climate change. 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. (UniMelb staff & student access).

Oxford Bibliographies Online - use the Browse by Subject button to navigate to International Law > Environmental Law, International. This provides authoritative research guides combining encyclopaedic entries and annotated bibliographies on all aspects of international environmental law. (UniMelb staff & student access).

The Elgar Encyclopedia of Environmental Law is an 8 volume work available online (UniMelb staff & student access) covering:

  • v. 1. Climate change law
  • v. 2. Decision making in environmental law
  • v. 3. Biodiversity and nature protection law
  • v. 4. Compliance and enforcement of environmental law
  • v. 5. Multilateral environmental treaties
  • v.7. Human rights and the environment
  • v. 8. Principles of environmental law.

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 print 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 'online journals' or Law Library (for print journals).

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 by UniMelb staff & students. 

Journals

Carbon & Climate Law Review (vol 1, 2007 +)

International Environmental Agreements (vol 1, 2001+)

Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law (vol 22, 2013 +)

Transnational Environmental Law (vol 1, 2012 +)

Yearbooks

Yearbook of International Environmental Law (vol 1, 1990 +)

Guide Author

This Research Guide is created and maintained by Robin Gardner, Law Research Service, Melbourne Law School. Please contact Robin at law-libraryresearch@unimelb.edu.au with corrections, suggestions or comments about the Guide.