Environmental Rule of Law

Environmental rule of law is central to sustainable development. It integrates environmental needs with the essential elements of the rule of law, and provides the basis for improving environmental governance. It highlights environmental sustainability by connecting it with fundamental rights and obligations. It reflects universal moral values and ethical norms of behaviour, and it provides a foundation for environmental rights and obligations. Without environmental rule of law and the enforcement of legal rights and obligations, environmental governance may be arbitrary, that is, discretionary, subjective, and unpredictable.

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The rule of law is an important concept at the heart of the UN. The former Secretary-General in his Report on the Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies defined the rule of law as a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

Increasing environmental pressures from climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, air and water pollution, soil degradation, among others, contribute to poverty and to growing social inequalities.

Conflicts over natural resources and environmental crimes intensify the problems. At least 40% of internal conflicts over the last 60 years have a link to natural resources. The risks of violent conflict increase when exploitation of natural resources causes environmental damage, loss of livelihood, or unequal distribution of benefits.

Poor people, women, and girls are especially vulnerable to environmental degradation.

Natural resources that are managed sustainably, transparently, and on the basis of the rule of law can be the engine for sustainable development as well as a platform for peace and justice.

The rule of law in environmental matters is essential for equity in terms of the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the provision of fair access by assuring a rights-based approach, and the promotion and protection of environmental and other socio-economic rights.

At its first universal session in 2013, UNEP’s Governing Body adopted Decision 27/9, on Advancing Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability. This decision is the first internationally negotiated document to establish the term ‘environmental rule of law.’ It invited Governments and relevant organisations to reinforce international, regional and sub-regional cooperation to combat noncompliance with environmental laws.

 In the Decision, Members States recognised the growing importance of rule of law in the field of the environment in order to reduce violations of environmental law and to achieve sustainable development overall. They held that ‘the violation of environmental law has the potential to undermine sustainable development and the implementation of agreed environmental goals and objectives at all levels and that the rule of law and good governance play an essential role in reducing such violations’.

Since 2013, UNEP’s Environmental Rule of Law initiative has been housed in its Legal Division.

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For more information, please contact: Arnold.Kreilhuber[at]un.org I Lara.Ognibene[at]un.org.