Archive for June, 2011

Role of international civil society in environmental diplomacy and their limitations

Cover of "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (...

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by Jonathan Pryke*

Environmental diplomacy is almost completely bound in multilateralism, focusing on issues that transcend the scope of national boundaries. Arguably, in the case of these issues of ‘global commons’, states are not the most appropriate representatives of global environmentalism. This role has instead fallen to international civil society to drive environmental diplomacy. But how far does this role reach? What are its limitations?

This essay will provide an analysis of why international environmental policy is so complex, an analysis of the history of environmental diplomacy through multilateralism, the vital role played by international civil society and a brief case study of the International Whaling Comission (IWC) to illustrate this importance. Through this analysis the essay will conclude that international civil society is vital for driving momentum, but still cannot drive the outcomes of environmental diplomacy.

Why environmental policy is so complex

International environmental policy is incredibly complex. It incorporates the key principles of state responsibility for transboundary environmental harm, the obligation not to harm the environment beyond national jurisdiction, environmental management, the precautionary principle, sustainable development and intergenerational equity.

It is also a difficult diplomatic tool to wield effectively to produce successful outcomes. It is a long-term game, generally with a time lag between a change in perceptions and the realisation of multilateral cooperation. It also requires strong political impulse and leadership backed up by domestic and international support. There is also no global environmental framework or global environmental court to help define and guide ongoing environmental diplomacy.

Environmental diplomacy also deals with underlying domestic tensions. The most important is the underlying tension between the long-term common purpose of managing public goods; such as oceans, atmosphere and biodiversity, and short-term sovereign concerns in protecting domestic interests of economic competitiveness and domestic productivity.

Environmental diplomacy and its history through multilateralism

Multilateralism has proven to be a vital, and on the whole very effective, diplomatic tool for addressing global environmental challenges, particularly in regards to management of global commons. Global multilateralism is vital for environmental diplomacy because without global vision individual states tend to have limited domestic ambition. There is also the threat of non-signatory states free riding off of states that have agreed and are taking action. Finally, without global agreements there is just too much possibility of states avoiding their responsibilities and offshoring the environmental destruction to non-signatory states. It is hard to see how the Montreal protocol combating ozone layer depletion or CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), halting trade in endangered species, would be effective without a global multilateral agreement.

Environmental diplomacy has emerged in two phases.

The first was in the 1970s, beginning with the 1972 Stockholm Declaration, which provided a political declaration of states responsibility for harm unto other nations as a result of domestic industry and an emerging recognition of state responsibility for transboundary environmental issues. Stockholm provided the impetus for a strong focus in the 1970s of the development of a wide range of core environmental conventions including CITES, MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978) and the World Heritage Convention. The Stockholm conference was driven by a concern for environmental issues that was born out of civil society. It was the culmination of the new wave environmental movement launched almost a decade earlier with the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring novel exposing the risks of pesticides. The Stockholm conference also paved the way for civic engagement in the global arena.

The second phase began in 1992 with the Rio conference, which was seen by many as the continuation of the Stockholm agenda. Rio was successful in many ways with agreements on the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UNFCCC and a commission for sustainable development, both of which are ongoing negotiating bodies for environmental issues. The Rio conference was also the result of the culminated pressure of the globalisation of the environmental movement throughout the 1980’s.

Over the last four decades there have been well over 500 multilateral environmental treaties agreed upon. Many of these multilateral treaties, such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol on the Ozone, are considered incredible successes for both the environmental movement and multilateral diplomacy. The history of environmental multilateralism creates a sound justification for the continuation of environmental diplomacy into the 21st century.

The vital role of international civil society

As the previous section has highlighted, the two phases of the environmental movement have been driven by civil society. International civil society is the driving force behind building public interest and action around environmental issues. It is responsible for providing a focus for public action and pressure upon governments to target focused environmental action through multilateralism.

It is also the case that, when dealing with global commons, states are not the most appropriate claimants and defendants of global interest. International civil society is required to give a voice to, and frame the long-term needs of, environmental action and sustainability.

Finally, because of the legal nature, but non-enforceability of most multilateral environmental agreements, international civil society plays a vital role as a coercive instrument to ensure states adhere to agreed upon treaties. By maintaining a public awareness of any violation of international treaties, international civil society makes the costs of public opinion and international pressure greater than the potential gains of treaty violation.

Whaling Case Study

A good case of the role of international civil society can be seen in the transformation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) from a ‘whaling club’ that exacerbated destruction caused by whaling into a preservation institute. This was driven in the 1970s by a combination of depleting whale stocks making the ongoing practice economically unviable and the growing public awareness of whaling driven by international civil society. This international civil society pressure culminated in 1982 when enough anti-whaling states joined the IWC to reach a 2/3 majority needed to impose a moratorium on whaling that stands to this day. Without the focused attention that international civil society was able to provide this issue, individual governments would never have felt enough pressure to take such strong action.

International civil society is incredibly important in driving the momentum and focus of environmental diplomacy, as well as its use a coercive instrument to deter treaty violation. This, however, is where its influence stops. While it can drive the momentum of environmental diplomacy, it cannot drive outcomes. While this is slowly changing with the greater inclusion of civil society into multilateral negotiations, the outcomes are still the sole sovereignty of the state and will continue in this fashion into the future.

*Jonathan Pryke is  currently completing his Dual Masters degree in Public Policy (Development Policy)/Diplomacy at the Australian National University. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Development Policy Centre, also located at the ANU, working primarily on foreign aid and development policy within the Asia-Pacific. He is a guest blogger of Reflective Diplomat.

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