UN report details global failure to enforce environmental laws

A view of Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by: Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — The number of environmental laws has increased 38-fold globally since the Stockholm declaration on the human environment in 1972 — but there has been lack of political will to implement these laws due to the potential impact on livelihoods, lands, properties, and profits, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Programme.

As the first-ever assessment of the global environmental rule of law, the report highlights the vast gaps between legislation and implementation for environmental laws and agencies: underresourced; lacking enforcement methods; poorly coordinated; hamstrung by a lack of data; and deprioritized against economic gain.

“If we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals the whole world has signed up to, we desperately need to increase the rule of law in the field of the environment.”

— Arnold Kreilhuber, deputy director of U.N. Environment’s law division

This lack of political will has been a major obstacle in the mitigation of climate change, the reduction of pollution, and the prevention of widespread species and habitat loss, the report claims.

“We have hundreds of multilateral agreements, including [on] water resources, biological diversity, chemicals and waste, climate change and more,” Arnold Kreilhuber, deputy director of UN Environment’s law division, explained to Devex. “But if you compare this with environmental data, there is a gap.” 

“The report really shows us that if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals the whole world has signed up to, we desperately need to increase the rule of law in the field of the environment,” Kreilhuber said. It is important in achieving “ambitions for human rights, peace and security, and leaving no one behind.”

This association between environmental rule of law and the SDGs is a critical part of the report’s communication, Kreilhuber explained, since environmental law is often seen as “soft” law, and less important than other fields.

“Personally I am convinced we are on the brink of an environmental rights movement, similar to workers’ rights and civil rights movements that we have seen in the past, simply because citizens are more aware of these guarantees governments have made and the environmental situation they are faced with,” Kreilhuber said.

The report examines case studies on environmental rule of law and offers key recommendations.

Laws and institutions

While laws and institutions addressing environmental issues have expanded, they are still maturing, the authors suggested. Laws have best taken hold where countries have understood the linkages between environment, economic growth, public health, social cohesion, and security.

Public and community groups need to be seen as critical stakeholders in environmental protection, with institutions and lawmakers engaging with them early and effectively to build trust, the report says. This involves publishing information, including open data on environmental indicators, and reports on decision-making for increased transparency. Proper resourcing is also crucial.

Carl Bruch, director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute and an author of the report, told Devex that differing views on how best to implement laws and monitor their effectiveness were expressed during consultations with member countries, with the final report highlighting some of the key approaches. But he said there is widespread agreement from countries on the need to improve existing laws and implementation. That will be important moving forward in sustaining enforcement action over time and demonstrating governments’ commitment to environmental goals.

Environmental law as a human right

For U.N. member countries, framing environmental law as part of human rights was a contentious issue in developing the report.

“In discussions on effective governance, rights related to the environment [were] of great positive interest to some countries and other countries weren’t so excited about it — they would prefer to have a technocratic and administrative approach over a rights-based approach,” Bruch explained.

But the link with human rights — including the right to water, health, and life — was found to be important in enabling environmental law to support sustainable development and environmental protection for all, including disadvantaged groups such as indigenous populations. Similarly, a lack of respect for rights could undermine environmental law.

U.N. special rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, told Devex that the report was a critical source of evidence, highlighting the challenges indigenous people face in accessing environmental systems; conflicts between customary and other types of law; and the environmental benefit indigenous land management can bring.

“Indigenous people have always pushed strongly,” she said. “The release of this report can enable indigenous peoples to further strengthen their assertions for the right to be recognized. The crisis we are facing will worsen, but they can use the report to show that if there is greater respect for rights there will be impact on biodiversity, erosion and other environmental challenges we need to address.”

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Progressing government action

Moving forward, there will be a need for a regular global assessment of the environmental rule of law and to track progress both nationally and globally using consistent indicators, the report suggests.

The report proposes an indicator framework to assess and monitor the implementation of environmental law, acting as a launching point for heightened engagement with governments worldwide. But it is a proposal that U.N. member states have been quiet on so far.

“We’ve had practically no comment, critical or otherwise, on the proposed indicator framework,” Bruch said. “I don’t know what this means. It is not yet a formal proposal, but as we look forward into future iterations I expert more attention will be paid to those indicators. I am expecting vigorous discussion.”

Countries will need to agree on the indicators and data collection methodology to support work to move forward — and governments must be willing to be held accountable for implementing the legislation they have enacted.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.