International Environmental Law – Example & Type

International law is a set of rules that have been agreed upon by nations to serve as a framework to establish stable and organized international relations. Although International laws were primarily laid out for Social and Economic practices it has widened to include various other fields for the global good.

There has been an increased awareness of the need to sustain our environment so that life itself could sustain on the planet. Various steps have been taken to make a united effort to reduce the damage that is being caused to the environment. Global and regional environmental issues have led to a unified effort to curb the growing onslaught of the environment. The inclusion of the environment as a separate area for international law began in the year 1972 with the Stockholm Conference on Environment.

With International cooperation, various agreements and treaties were signed to outline the steps to be taken to protect the environment. Some of the issues that the environmental law addresses are the ozone layer depletion and global warming, deforestation, pollution from ships, endangered species and,  shipping of hazardous wastes, radioactive contamination, etc..

It is understood that the pollution caused by one nation can impact on a global level. Unchecked pollution can affect the safety of the entire human race. Hence a set of laws has been laid out to ensure that the government of every Nation is able to keep a check on the levels of pollution caused. Here are some of the environmental laws set to control pollution.

General Principles Of International Environmental Law (IEL)

  • Duty of Prevention : The duty of prevention involves minimizing the environmental damage as a chief objective.
  • Precautionary Principle : The principle of precaution states that where there are threats of serious or irreversible harm, a lack of full scientific certainty about the causes and effects of environmental harm shall not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.
  • Polluter Pays Principle : In essence it is a principle of economic policy wherein the person responsible for causing pollution should ultimately be held responsible for bearing the cost of pollution abatement or remedying the harm caused.
  • Inter-generational Equity : The underlying presumption of the principle of inter-generational equity is that human beings living in the natural environment of the planet earth with all other species and living beings hold the earth in trust for future generations.
  • The Principles of Notification and Mutual Assistance and Cooperation : The principles of cooperation, exchange of information, notification, consultation and negotiation in good faith
  • The Principle of Public Participation : participation of the public is essential both in the context of prior authorization of a hazardous activity and more particularly in the context of preparation and examination of an environment impact assessment.
  • Capacity Building : Compliance with international environmental obligations in general and with obligations concerning the prevention of transboundary harm in particular, involves the capacity of a State to develop appropriate standards and to bring more environmentally friendly technologies [CER/noise zoning]

Hard Law – Legal Instruments which are directly enforceable. They are in form of legally binding agreements or principles which are directly enforceable by national and international bodies

Soft Law – Legal Instruments in form of agreements or principles that are meant to provide a basic guideline for nations to respect certain norms or incorporate them into national law. Although these agreements sometimes oblige countries to adopt implementing legislation, they are not usually enforceable on their own in a court.

Related: Importance of Environmental Education for Saving Environment, Environmental Education

International Environmental Laws on Air quality

Air pollution has been increasing with the increase in technological advancement and the unending rise in human population. Air pollution does not just have a localized effect but spreads across globally. The most profound impact of air pollution has been on the depleting Ozone layer in the atmosphere. Various treaties and agreements have been signed to protect the environment against pollution and to gradually reduce and then eliminate major factors contributing to air pollution.

Air Quality

Related: Effect of Air Pollution on Plants, Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

The Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), held in Geneva in the year 1979, discussed the major environmental problems and extended eight protocols to identify and adopt specific measures through scientific collaboration and policy negotiation to reduce emissions of air pollutants. Some of the major air pollutants addressed in these protocols include; Sulphur emissions, heavy metals, POPs, Nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds.

The Vol I and Vol II of Annex 16 of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1981 address the concern towards Environmental protection by controlling the Aircraft noise and the Aircraft Engine Emissions.

With the constant depletion in the ozone layer and its rising effect on human health, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone layer was held in the year 1985. It provided frameworks to reduce the production of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) one of the main contributors to the destruction of the ozone layer and the growing threat of skin cancer. The agreement signed during this convention includes the provision to share information acquired through research on climate and the atmosphere to enable a better understanding of the effects on the ozone layer. In order to regulate the production and emission of harmful substances that affect the ozone layer, the agreement calls for the assessment of the effects of the depleting ozone and introduction of policies for its preservation. The Montreal Protocol signed under the Vienna Convention, aims to gradually reduce and finally eliminate the production of Ozone depleting substances which includes Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

In order to tackle the high release of Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides into the atmosphere which was resulting in acid rain, a treaty was signed between the US and Canada called as the U.S.- Canada Air Quality Agreement or the Acid rain treaty in the year 1986. As per this treaty both the countries needed to “effectively reduce and control the emission of air pollutants through cooperative action such that it did not cause damage to the environment of the other nation.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international treaty that was signed during the Earth Summit held in Rio De Janeiro in the year 1992. The main objective of the treaty was to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The UNFCCC includes multiple international protocols or treaties that would help to achieve its target. The most prominent of these protocols include the Kyoto Protocol, Paris agreement and the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

The Kyoto Protocol listed out the commitment periods (2008-2012 and 2013-2020) for the different countries to fulfill their obligations to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases and their emissions as per their wealth and economic capacity.

The Paris Agreement signed in the year 2016 aims in increasing the adaptability to the changing climate and promoting green technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in ways that the food production is not impacted negatively. It also intends to hold the increase of global temperature below 2°C and provide financial assistance to support climate-resilient technological development and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The UNFCCC created the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions mechanism which allowed the individual countries to chart the steps that they would take to reduce the Greenhouse gas emission and the steps taken to adapt the effects of climatic changes. The nations could state the assistance that it would require or could provide to achieve the targets.

As per the UNFCCC the member nations are classified as per their levels of industrialization and economic strengths into different categories. The countries that are industrially developed are required to support the developing and least developed nations financially and technically in combating the effects of climate change and gradually reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

The Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) was adopted under the UNFCCC in the year 2015. It calls on the government of all the member nations of the UNFCCC to encourage public participation in environmental preservation to help achieve the objectives of the Convention. It urged the nations to empower the people by implementing educational programs and creating awareness towards the environmental issues and train the required personnel, promote access to information with regards to the effects of climatic and environmental changes.

International Environmental Laws on Water quality

 Large sections of the population of the developing nations do not have access to clean drinking water. This is due to the rampant release of pollutants into the water resources. The water quality Laws regulate the discharge of pollutants into the water resources and its sustenance. There are laws that regulate the pollution caused to the world Oceans by marine and ship pollutions. This is important to maintain the aquatic ecosystems in the world oceans and seas. The issue becomes harder to solve due to the transboundary nature of many water resources shared by multiple nations. Hence a legal framework was created to help resolve the stress on these transboundary resources.

Water Pollution

One of the main conventions to address the issue of transboundary watercourses was the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International lakes also known as the Water convention held in the year 1992. The main purpose of the convention was to manage and protect transboundary surface and ground waters. The member nations are obliged to cooperate and function as per the joint bodies created. It aims to monitor and promote research and development, assist with consultations, issue warnings and alarm systems, provide mutual assistance and promote access to information.

The protocol on Civil Liability under the Water convention allows the victims of transboundary industrial accidents on international watercourses to file for a legal claim for compensation from the parties responsible. The protocol on Water and Health under this convention addresses the problems of waterborne disease and the access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The member nations are required to set commitments in water and health and assessing the national situation to streamline responsibilities to provide access to sanitation and consumption.

Waste (Hazardous substances) Management Laws

The International Environmental law for waste management lays out the rules that need to be followed for international transport and disposal of hazardous waste. As per the Basal Convention held in the year 1989, calls for the nations to reduce waste generation and keep the waste within their boundaries. It prohibited the export and import of covered waste between nations and states that illegal traffic of waste is criminal. The Basal Convention was amended in the year 1995 to include the traffic of waste for any reason like recycling as prohibitory. In the Bamako convention held in 1991, many African nations entered into a treaty prohibiting the import of hazardous waste which includes radioactive waste.

As per the Rotterdam Convention held in 1998, it is mandatory to use proper labeling for hazardous chemicals products and pesticides in International trade. The convention listed out multiple substances that were deemed to be hazardous. The labeling is required to include proper directions on safe handling, details of contents and list out any restrictions or bans on the chemicals. The importing countries can decide on whether or not to allow the products to be imported and the exporting countries are required to ensure that the exporters comply with the labeling rules.

As per the European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road the hazardous materials that can be transported internationally has been classified as per the level of danger that it poses to the environment and to the population. It lays out specific conditions to regulate the type of vehicle to be used for transportation, the packaging, and the labeling as well as the route of transport. The agreement consists of two conditions, Annex A and Annex B and nine chapters that lay out the rules to be followed for the transport and the hazard symbols that are required to be on display.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) held in the year 2001 agreed on the requirement of the developed countries to eliminate the production and use of POPS and adopt environmentally safe methods for disposal of these chemicals.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury, held in the year 2013 discussed the effects of mercury on the environment and the human and animal life. The convention includes 35 articles each addressing the global concern over the long-range environmental impact it has once introduced anthropogenically. Article 11 deals with the issue of mercury waste and their effective management in an environmentally sound manner as well as the transboundary transport of the element and its compounds.

The export and import of radioactive waste have been prohibited within the South Pacific regions since 2001 as per the treaty signed in the Waigani Convention held in the year 1995.

International Environmental Law Related to Marine Environment 

The seas and the oceans of the world have been a dumping ground for industrial and human waste. This has led to an extensive damage to the marine environment. United efforts have been made to reduce the pollution in the seas and oceans and prevent further carnage of the marine ecosystem. Various international agreements and treaties were signed to ensure that there were strict protocols that were adhered to globally.

In 1954 the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil was held In London. The Convention recognized the pollution caused to the sea due to routine shipboard operations. It prohibited the dumping of oily wastes within a certain area from the land and special areas where it could cause a greater danger to the environment or affect human or animal lives.


The International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties was signed in the year 1969. This gives the right to a country with a coastline to take necessary steps from oil pollution in order to, “prevent, mitigate or eliminate grave and imminent danger to their coastline or related interests”. For this the affected member nation has to consult with the other nations affected by the pollution including the owner of the cargo owner and experts from the International Maritime Organization list. Utmost care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no risk caused to human life and assist with appropriate steps to help the ship’s crew. The measures that are taken needs to be proportional to the damage caused.

The rules set by the convention is applicable to all seagoing vehicles other than warships or government-owned vehicles used on a non-commercial service.

The International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage was held in Brussels in the year 1969.  This convention sets strict liability for ship owners in case found guilty of causing oil pollution. The treaty signed under this convention mandates the ship-owners to have insurance or some form of financial security to ensure the capability to cover any liability in case of an oil spill.

The International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage was originally held in the year 1971 in Brussels but was later modified in the year 1992 often called as FUND92. The treaty was aimed to relieve ship-owners from unfair liabilities that exceed their capacity or due to unforeseeable circumstances. The treaty also indemnifies the ship-owner or the insurer in case the ship was in full compliance and the spill was not caused by any deliberate attempt. The FUND92 is obligated to cover for damages including compensation to victims in case there is no liable ship-owner or the ship-owner is unable to make the payment.

The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other matter was held in London in the year 1972 and is frequently referred to as the London convention. This convention covers the indiscriminate disposal of wastes and other matters from ships, aircraft, and platforms. It made it necessary to have a prior special permit for dumping of materials not listed during the convention. Three Annexes were included in the treaty which categorized the wastes into the black and the greylist. The materials in the blacklist (Annex I) were not allowed to be dumped into the ocean while some could be dumped only if the contaminants were present in trace amounts. The wastes included in the greylist (Annex II) required special care before dumping into the ocean. Annex III included the details on factors to be considered while issuing a permit to dump in the ocean.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships was held in London in the year 1973. This treaty was modified in 1978 by the Marine Protocol. The main aim of the convention was to reduce the pollution of the oceans and the seas by dumping wastes, oil, and air pollution. It includes 6 annexes that specify the rules and regulation to be followed.

  • Annex I specifies the design and feature of ship equipments that can help minimize waste generation. It lays out the regulations to the treatment of the bilge water and tank cleaning waste for all marine vehicles and identifies the Special Sea Areas that were at risk of oil pollution.
  • Annex II includes the details on the discharge of pollutants in large quantities from ships and other marine vehicles. The discharge of the pollutants is permitted only on the reception facilities outside the 12 miles perimeter from the nearest land.
  • Annex III includes the general rules and regulation pertaining to the packaging, labeling, storage, quantity, prevention and notification to prevent pollution by harmful substances.
  • Annex IV includes the requirements with regards to controlling the pollution caused by Sewage from ships.
  • Annex V classifies wastes from a ship and specifies the distances from which a particular waste type can be disposed of in the sea. It puts a complete ban on the dumping of plastic into the ocean and seas.
  • Annex VI includes the details on regulating harmful gas emission from ships including ozone-depleting gases and onboard incineration and lays out the requirements for the establishments of SECA (Sulphur Oxide Emission areas), reception facilities for cleaning wastes from ships.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in the year 1982. This treaty specifies the rules and regulations that the member nations need to follow with regards to the use of the world’s seas and oceans. This included the guidelines for businesses, conservation of the marine environment and its natural resources.

The International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC) was adopted in the year 1990. According to this convention, the member nations are required to take up all necessary measures to prepare and respond for oil pollution emergencies. The OPRC lays out a global framework for international cooperation in the occurrence of any oil pollution emergency. All the member nations are required to lay out a plan to deal with pollution incidents individually or in cooperation with other members. The treaty makes it a mandate for the member nations to have a stockpile of oil spill combating equipments and methods to be exercised. All ships and operators of offshore units are required to have an “Oil emergency Plan” that lays out the steps by step process to deal with different types of oil pollution incidents.

Laws on Nuclear Safety

The effect of nuclear war or accident was quite apparent from the Nagasaki Hiroshima Bombing and the Chernobyl accident. The effects of those incidents still remain apparent today in the millions of people who were born with birth defects post the incidents. These incidences are marked as the turning point in human civilization and technological advancement.

The Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage was held in the year 1963. As per the treaty that was signed the Operator holds exclusive liability of the Nuclear Installation concerned such that the victims if any does not have to prove fault or negligence of the operator. The operator is obligated to cover for any damage caused through insurance or other financial security. The treaty mandates equal treatment of all victims irrespective of their nationality or region of domicile so long as the damage caused is within the scope of the convention. It also gives exclusive jurisdictional competence of the courts of the contracting party or nation where the incident occurred or in case the incident occurs outside the territory of the contracting party then the party in whose territory the nuclear installation is situated. The treaty necessitates the recognition and enforcement of the judgment passed by the jurisdictional court.

Nuclear Safety

The Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water was signed in the year 1963 in Moscow. This treaty is frequently referred to as the Partial Test Ban Treaty or the PTBT. This treaty permanently banned the member nations from testing of all nuclear weapons everywhere other than those conducted underground. The Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident was held in Vienna in the year 1986. According to this treaty, a member nation is obliged to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in case a nuclear accident occurs within its territories and has the potential to impact any other nations nearby. The notification should include the information pertaining to the amount and type of radioactivity that was released and the time and location of the incident.

The Convention on Assistance in the case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency was held in the year 1986 in the city of Vienna. As per the treaty that was signed; the member nations have agreed to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency with any assistance that they can provide in the occurrence of any nuclear accident. The Convention on Nuclear safety was held in the year 1994 in Vienna. The treaty that was signed mandates the implementation of safety rules and standards at all nuclear facilities. This includes specifications on the selection of the site, design, and construction of the facility, safety verification and operation with strict standards of emergency preparedness for prompt response.

Also Read: Main types of environmental pollution that we must be careful!, Types of water pollution