Friday, 5 March 2010

International Law: False hope or necessary framework of ideals?

As the target deadlines approach for big international agreements like the CBD and the Millennium development goals, it is time to assess not only how much closer we are to reaching the goals and ideals laid out by these documents, but also what these documents mean to us as a society. Clearly, if the goals set out by these agreements were met in a timely manner, or met at all, then their merit could be measured in their ability to effect real, tangible change. However, the deadlines for completion of many of these goals are fast approaching, present or past. It is important then to look at not only where and why we have lagged or failed in achieving our goals, but also what, if any, other importance these treaties might have in the absence of efficient change.

Figures 1 and 2: The oft advertised target years of large international agreements can promote hope at there conception, but do they simply instigate frustration as the deadlines pass by with promises still unfulfilled?

If none of the targets are met for a treaty on time, then can we really look to international agreements as a source of potential solutions? Are the issues we face simply too complex and nuanced to be fixed from a global top-down perspective? I would argue that, yes, at times they are. Preventing biodiversity loss cannot be accomplished with the signing of a document alone. Livelihoods are at stake in some places. In others, research and enforcement capacity simply do not exist at the necessary levels. Signing a piece of paper saying they should, does not, in and of itself, manifest change.

Figure 3: A brief look at the ideals set out by the Millenium Development Goals. All appear to be highly noble and worthwhile endeavors, and tend to highlight what we would like to, but have yet to, achieve as a society. Source:

Ultimately, I would argue, these agreements are really best for establishing ideals we collectively value as a species. World summits can carry a lot of hype and bring much attention to an issue, but they also bring with them high expectations for change and action, to which they rarely live up. In reality however, a summit which manages to find and codify common ground and values may in many regards be considered a success. The degree of challenge involved in achieving even this much is testament to that fact. Take, for example, the repeatedly failed attempts to create a legally binding global convention on forests. Despite the overwhelming importance and urgency of finding solutions to rapid deforestation, collective goals and compromise have remained just out of reach. In contrast, the CBD has managed to increase recognition of the importance of conserving biodiversity and has precipitated the formation of national biodiversity action plans across the globe. Possibly of greatest importance and fundamental difficulty, it created a consensus amongst 192 nations regarding the need to increase scientific understanding of biodiversity, to protect indigenous rights, and to conserve genetic and biological resources.

Figure 4: This simple bar graph points to the many conventions that have high numbers of signatories, highlighting the ability of international law to codify common goals and values of humanity. Source:

Figure 5: Activists from Greenpeace implore parties to the CBD at the Rio Summit to consider the weight of their responsibility. Source:

None of these agreed upon ideals are being realized in all places. Indeed, it is unlikely that any one scheme, strategy or policy will work in all places to achieve these goals. Solutions will have to be found locally in many instances, taking into account the different social, historical, ecological and economic context of each place. Conventions, treaties and international agreements do not always provide these solutions or efficiently instigate change, but they do have an important role to play in policy. They may not shape the world as effectively as we would like. As set targets come and go without being met, it is easy to become disillusioned. Yet, they may be important for setting an outline of ideals, for making a statement about the kind of world in which we would like to exist.

For some further reading on the area take a look at these:

- Le Prestre (2002) “The CBD at 10: The Long Road to Effectiveness” Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, 5: 269-285

- Humphreys (2005) “The Elusive Quest for a Global Forest’s Convention” Reciel. 14(1) 1-10

- Sand (2001) “A Century of Green Lessons: The Contribution of Nature Conservation Regimes to Global Governance” International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 1, 33-72

- Dimitrov (2006) “International Environmental Policy: Regimes and Non-regimes in Global Governance” Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc

By Julia Wester

1 comment:

  1. I hold domestic capacity building, instead of global legal restraint, as the most important benefit of an international treaty. Before Copenhagen, news stories hit headlines; local projects were initiated; tips on low-carbon living were circulated; people were talking... Even if nothing concrete comes out immediately, getting this energy activated cultivates the ground for larger-scale collective action.