Hamdallah Zedan
assesses the role of the Convention on Biological Diversity in the rule of law on environmental sustainability

The Convention on Biological Diversity is considered a landmark in the international community’s approach to environment and development. It adopts a holistic approach to the conservation and sustainable use of the Earth’s natural resource base and recognizes that protecting its wealth of living organisms and ecosystems in an integrated way is essential for sustainable development.

As the key international legal instrument for conserving biological diversity and using it sustainably, and for fairly and equitably sharing the benefits from using genetic resources, the Convention is an essential element in the international legal framework underpinning sustainable development.

The Convention has contributed to the development of international law in this area. It reaffirms the principle that states have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or areas beyond national jurisdiction. It notes the validity of the precautionary approach as a basis for action: indeed its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was the first international instrument to apply it in decision making. The Convention also reflects the principles of notification, exchange of information and consultation on activities originating under a Party’s jurisdiction or control which present imminent or grave danger to the biological diversity of other states or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

Important agent
The Convention has been an important agent in developing ‘soft law’. Its broad goals, general principles and norms must be translated into action through practical measures. Governments are encouraged to develop policies, programmes and legislation to implement their commitments. The Conference of the Parties to the Convention has adopted a number of guidelines and guiding principles to assist Parties in implementing their obligations. Though not legally binding, these constitute international consensus on appropriate implementation measures.
Governments are encouraged to develop policies, programmes and legislation to implement their commitments

Ecosystem approach
The Conference of the Parties has adopted the ecosystem approach as the primary conceptual framework for action. In 2000 it endorsed principles to provide guidance in applying this approach, a strategy for the integrated management of natural resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use equitably. It has also adopted guidelines that seek to ensure the development of rules-based and predictable national frameworks to facilitate access to genetic resources and promote the sharing of benefits from their use. Meanwhile guidelines for the sustainable use of biological diversity consist of practical principles, operational guidelines and implementation tools calculated to balance the need to maximize human livelihoods against the necessity of conserving the underlying natural resource base.

These guidelines also contain important principles critical for sustainability and effective local implementation for:

  • the participation of stakeholders in developing policies and legislation, and in environmental decision making;

  • developing national biodiversity strategies and action plans;

  • integrating biodiversity concerns into sectoral and cross-sectoral plans and programmes;

  • developing, and making operational, environmental impact assessment procedures;

  • protecting the rights of local-level environmental resource managers.

Thus, for the past 12 years, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the international processes to which it gave birth have played an active role as a source of international legal norms and principles essential for environmental sustainability. It will continue to provide an effective forum for international consensus building on key sustainability issues

Hamdallah Zedan is Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Strengthening the rule of law | Partners in law | Justice can be shortsighted | Force of law | A matter of judgement | A law of energy | People | Rule of man, or rule of law? | At a glance: The rule of law | Sebastião Salgado | Sustainable development comes from Saturn! | One planet, different worlds | Nature’s wisdom | Kickback fightback | Conflict and cooperation | Holistic landmark | Empowering the poor | Legal climate | Small is effective | Building the framework

Complementary issues:
Biological diversity 2000
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002