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Environmental Laws Impeded by Lack of Enforcement, First-ever Global Assessment Finds

24 January 2019: Environmental laws have grown dramatically over the last three decades but, due to the lack of implementation and enforcement, they fall far short of what is required to address environmental challenges. Weak enforcement is a global trend exacerbating environmental threats. This is the main conclusion of the first-ever global assessment of environmental rule of law.

Drafted by researchers from the Environmental Law Institute under the direction of a team from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the report titled, ‘Environmental Rule of Law,’ details the many developments in environmental law since 1972, as countries gradually understand the linkages between the environment, economic growth, public health, social cohesion, and security. As of 2017, 176 countries have environmental framework laws, 150 countries have enshrined environmental protection or the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, and 164 countries have created cabinet-level bodies responsible for environmental protection. In addition, over 350 environmental courts and tribunals have been established in over 50 countries, and more than 60 countries have at least some legal provisions on the citizens’ right to environmental information.

Progress on implementation and enforcement however is lacking for a variety of reasons, the report notes. Laws may lack clear standards or necessary mandates, or may not be tailored tonational and local contexts. In addition, implementing ministries are often underfunded and politically weak in comparison to ministries responsible for economic or natural resource development. These trends are not limited to developing countries. Developed countries’ performance on environmental matters is also lagging behind.

Political will is now critical to making sure our laws work for the planet.

The report pays significant attention to a “particularly worrying” trend: the backlash against efforts for implementation of environmental legislation, evident in the harassment, arbitrary detention, and murders of environmental defenders, as well as in restrictions for civil society funding. Between 2002 and 2013, 908 people were murdered, including forest rangers, government inspectors, and activists, and 197 environmental defenders were killed in 2017 alone.

As the first global assessment, the report draws on country experiences and challenges, highlighting trends and opportunities to strengthen environmental rule of law. Highlighting the need to undertake a regular global assessment, the report proposes an indicator framework, and draws attention to existing datasets that may be utilized. It further calls for a concerted effort to support countries in pilot testing approaches to strengthen environmental rule of law, further fostering exchange of experiences between jurisdictions.

In addition, the report proposes numerous steps that States can take to support environmental rule of law, including to evaluate current mandates of environmental institutions to identify regulatory overlap or “underlap,” and build the capacity of the public for meaningful engagement. States can also prioritize protection of environmental defenders, and consider the creation of specialized environmental courts and tribunals.

“We have the machinery in the form of laws, regulations and agencies to govern our environment sustainably,” Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UNEP said. “Political will is now critical to making sure our laws work for the planet. This first global assessment on environmental rule of law highlights the work of those standing on the right side of history — and how many nations are stronger and safer as a result.”

“This report solves the mystery of why problems such as pollution, declining biodiversity and climate change persist despite the proliferation of environmental laws in recent decades,” David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, said. “Unless the environmental rule of law is strengthened, even seemingly rigorous rules are destined to fail and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled,” he cautioned.