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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 63
April 12 , 2008

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Law analysis

Global environmental justice and international legal order

Hafizur Rahman Karzon &Farhana Helal Mehtab

International legal order has to address environmental issues seriously to ensure just settlement of both existing and emerging problems for alldeveloped, developing and least developed nations.

The UN Climate Change Conference, held in Bali, Indonesia, from 3-15 December, 2007, explicitly acknowledged the findings of the recent scientific assessment by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that deep cuts in global emissions of greenhouse gases will be required to prevent global warming. The conference took important decisions to reduce deforestation, and to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The worldwide industrialization and urbanization of last two and half centuries have created serious adverse impacts on the environment. With the discovery of steam engine by James Watt in the eighteenth century industrial revolution begun. Men engaged their all out effort to discover new machines and new energy for a better and comfortable life, which emanated from their urge of establishing supremacy over environment. Men started using coal, gas and oil to operate factories, machines, railway, aeroplane, and vehicles, which produced carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, causing acid rain, green house effect, deforestation, and destruction of bio-diversity. By-product of fossil fuel, together with FCCH emanating from aircoolers, refrigerators, and cosmetic spray caused the depletion of ozone layer, making the ultra violet ray of the sun to enter this earth, and cause cancer and other deadly diseases.

Since 1750s burning of fossil fuel, land use change and agricultural practices caused irreversible loss to the bio-capacity of our planet. During this time about 60 per cent of the ecosystems have been exploited unsustainably, making sheer imbalance in the functions of ecosystem. Scientific information on the global warming and ozone layer depletion made the international community aware of the environmental issues. Emphasis has been put on greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, which has exceeded its previous rate in last 6 lakh 50 thousand years and caused rise in global temperature by 0.740 C over the past one hundred years and accelerated of late. If the continues, the global average temperature will rise between 0.50 C and 1.70 C by 2050.

Extreme climate change will give rise to floods, droughts and cyclones, which will put food security, access to water and natural resources, better housing and infrastructure at risk. The developing countries will encounter mass hunger, malaria, flood and water shortage if warming is increase by 2 C.

From the 1960s countries around the globe and international community started acting after the publication of the paradigm-breaking books and articles such as Rachel Carson's “Silent Spring” (1962) and Garrett Hardin's “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). This time environmental concerns were ignited by a number of catastrophes. Thalidomide caused congenital deformation in babies, the Torrey Canyon spilled oil along France's picturesque northern coast and acid rain fell as a result of severe air pollution in Western Europe, caused the death of fish and other organisms in the thousands of lakes of Sweden. In this context, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in June 1972, which turned the environment a major issue at the international level. The 1970s also witnessed the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), holding of the World Heritage Convention, the World Climate Conference, the World Climate Programme etc.

The 1980s saw a number of catastrophic events which had permanent bearing on the peoples' understanding who realized that if proper measures are not taken to preserve the environment, the human race may reach on the verge of extinction. In 1984, a leak from a Union Carbide plant left 3 thousand people dead and 20 thousand people injured in Bhupal, India. The same year, up to 1 million people starved to death in Ethiopia. The world's worst nuclear leakage happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. The continuous air and water pollution and destruction of bio-diversity led the world community to adopt the World Conservation Strategy, formation of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), arranging the UN Conference on Environment and Development or the Earth Summit in June 1992.

The IPCC has been credited for their research and effort to spread out the knowledge about man-made climate change and the measures to address environmental issues, which pose challenges to the traditional international legal order. Birnie and Boyle mentioned that international environmental law is at an early stage of development and has been evolving at a time when the heterogeneity of the international community has rapidly intensified, economic problems are increasing and the developmental needs of poorer countries have become urgent.

Philippe Sands mentioned that environmental issues pose challenges to the international legal order in three ways. First, environmental issues pose challenges for the legislative, administrative and adjudicative functions of international law. The legislative functions require the creation of legal principles and binding rules and the administrative functions require those to be applied by the state and non-state actors for conservation of the environment. Adjudicative functions aim to provide forum for settling environmental disputes. Secondly, there is discordance between existing international legal order and global environmental order, which consists of a biosphere of interdependent ecosystem, as it cannot comfortably coexist with the artificial territorial boundaries of nations. Thirdly, all the state and non-state actors will have to play very significant role for fighting threats posed to environment.

The international legal order has to address all these environmental issues sufficiently in order to establish a just world, which is sine qua non for the development and existence of the least developed and developing countries. Though the developed countries are largely responsible for environment pollution, but the poor and least developed countries will endure irreversible loss if proper measures are not taken for conservation of the environment and for ensuring sustainable development. In the sequel of global warming, the exposure of extreme events like flood, cyclone, drought, sea-level rise, vector-borne diseases are appearing recurrently in least developed countries. Bangladesh, for example, is projected to lose 17.5 percent of its land if sea level rises about 40 inches (1m).

Though the Brundtland Commission assumed a common future for all the countries, but there is clear difference between the developed and developing countries' perspectives to fight environmental challenges, the division emerged in the Earth Summit. Whereas the developed countries preferred further environmental regulation, developing states accorded priority to development. The developing countries clearly conveyed that they were not ready to accept further environmental controls, without such financial assistance and transfer of technology as was necessary to offset the economic restrictions otherwise involved.

“Think globally and act locally” should be the mantra of addressing the environmental issues. If we want to ensure global environmental justice, we must recast the international legal order, integrate development and environment and sufficiently address global poverty.

Hafizur Rahman Karzon is an Assistant Professor, Law Department, Dhaka University. Farhana Helal Mehtab is an Assistant Professor, Law and Human Rights Department, University of Development Alternative.


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