The New Terrain: Treaty Congestion

Since 1970, the international community has become veryskilled at negotiating international environmental agreements and non-hierarchic legal instruments. Countries now conclude complicated agreements in less than two years: the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (with four detailed annexes), the Biological Diversity Convention and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe protocols on industrial accidents, volatile organic compounds, and last year, sulfur dioxide. (It still usually takes more than two years for them to go into effect.)

The number and variety of environmental agreements has reached the point that some critics ask whether they may not severely strain the physical and organizational capacity of the countries to handle them. There are signs of treaty congestion, in the sense of separate negotiating fora, separate secretariats and funding mechanisms, overlapping provisions and inconsistencies between agreements, and severe demands on local capacity to participate in negotiations, meetings of parties, and associated activities. This affects the international community as a whole, since there will always be limited resources to address difficult issues and some countries may suffer particular inequities in their ability to participate effectively in the new regimes. This does not mean that we should refrain from concluding new international legal instruments, only that the highway for them needs to be smooth and more efficient.

With such a large number of international agreements, there is great potential for overlapping provisions in agreements, inconsistencies in obligations, significant gaps in coverage, and duplication of goals and responsibilities. This issue was recognized during the parallel negotiations for the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Biodiversity Convention and the nonbinding Forest Principles, all of which may affect forest management. The Biodiversity Convention includes a separate article on “Relationship with Other International Conventions”.

Some issues require analyzing the intersection between provisions of different agreements, such as those in the London Convention of 1972 with the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, or those in the Law of the Sea Convention with the London Convention of 1972 or the Antarctic Treaty. Reconciling provisions in different agreements is likely to become a more frequent issue. Moreover, different international dispute settlement bodies may give different answers, which suggests a need to coordinate in this area as well.

International environmental law has developed in a piecemeal, almost random, manner. In contrast to other fields such as trade, there is no comprehensive agreement on the environment. The Legal Experts for the World Commission on Environment and Development suggested that [such] an international agreement on the environment be concluded. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has recently produced such a draft agreement. Some scholars have suggested that a code on the environment be negotiated to provide parity with the comprehensive framework provided by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the new World Trade Organization Agreement into which it is incorporated. It is now timely to address whether such an agreement or code is needed. Treaty congestion also contributes to significant inefficiencies in implementing international agreements. There are usually separate secretariats, monitoring processes, scientific councils, financing mechanisms, technical assistance programs, and dispute resolution procedures. In the future, it may be possible to induce more efficiency by using information technology and by such measures as regular meetings of the secretariats for related
treaties, as the United Nations Environment Programme is now initiating. The information revolution can assist by facilitating gathering, analysis, and dissemination of data and making communications easier and less costly.

Possibly it is time to consider developing the environmental counterpart to the World Intellectual Property Organization, which consolidated the administration of separate intellectual property conventions. While transferring existing agreements to a new jurisdictional umbrella would be difficult, it might be possible to consolidate new international environmental agreements in a central home or to develop a coordinating mechanism to encourage efficiency.

Finally, treaty congestion leads to overload at the national level in negotiating and implementing the agreements. Today a large number of international environmental institutions and treaty regimes have some claim on the administrative capacity of national states. Even industrialized states with well-developed regulatory mechanisms and bureaucracies show signs of being overwhelmed. As attention shifts to the need to comply with existing agreements, the burden on the administrative capacity of states will become more acute. Attention must be given to developing local capacity to implement and comply with international environmental agreements
effectively and efficiently.