This article has been written by Prasenjeet Sudhakar Kirtikar pursuing Diploma in Corporate Litigation and edited by Shashwat Kaushik. In this article, we will discuss a few important conventions organised internationally to briefly understand the rationale behind them, their essential features and how our country, India, being a signatory, has taken steps to follow the guidelines of these conventions to formulate an environmental protection plan in the country.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.


The development of international environmental conventions has played a pivotal role in shaping and influencing environmental laws around the globe, including in India. These conventions serve as frameworks for countries to collaborate in addressing shared environmental challenges and promoting sustainable practises. In the context of India, the impact of these international agreements on environmental law has been significant.

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During the second half of the 20th century, a sense of responsibility for the protection of the environment was developed at the international level. It’s not that there was no human consciousness paying attention to the balance of the ecosystem before that. However, the togetherness of nations to protect the environment can be observed from various conferences held at the global level in the later part of the 20th century.

Development of international environmental conventions

Stockholm Conference, 1972

The United Nations Conference on Human Environment (UNCHE) was held in Stockholm, Sweden, from June 5 to 16, 1972. It was the first major attempt to solve global problems related to the environment through international agreements between various countries. There were 26 principles agreed upon and declared by the participating states, which are known as the “Magna Carta on Human Environment”. The first few principles helped formulate the concept of “sustainable development” to be achieved to safeguard the interests of the future generation of mankind.

The main contributions of the conference are as follows:

The Declaration of Human Environment

It is divided into two parts. The first part discusses the truths about man and his relationship with the environment, and the second part lays down 26 principles in terms of the rights and obligations of human beings towards nature.

The first part talks about how the environment plays a significant role in the livelihood and intellectual, social and spiritual growth of human beings. The second part explains the fundamental right of man to enjoy a healthy environment and his responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations. It also explains the responsibility of the state to prevent pollution of any kind and provide a healthy environment for all living beings and it is also an obligation to the state to cooperate in the development of international law related to pollution and environmental issues.

The Action Plan for the Human Environment

The Action Plan was divided into three parts:

  • To identify problems in the international environmental crisis;
  • Environmental management;
  • Supporting measures such as education and training.

World Environmental Day

It was unanimously agreed by all the signatories that World Environment Day will be observed on June 5th every year.

Resolution on Nuclear Weapon Tests

A resolution was adopted by the Conference to prohibit and condemn nuclear weapon tests, which are specifically carried out in an open atmosphere.

Resolution on Institutional and Financial Agreements

It was decided that there will be a Governing Council for the implementation of environmental programmes, an Environment Secretariat to coordinate such programmes and advise international organisations, and an Environmental Coordination Board to achieve efficient coordination of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). There will be a voluntary Environmental Fund established for the implementation of environmental programmes.

Nairobi Declaration on Human Environment, 1982

The United Nations convened a conference in Nairobi from May 10th to May 18th, 1982, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference held in 1972. Some important declarations of the conference are as follows:

  • The relevance and importance of the Stockholm Declaration were reaffirmed.
  • Poverty and misuse of natural resources are two main reasons for the deterioration of the environment.
  • International cooperation and guidelines are paramount to individual countries in framing their environmental policies.
  • There is a need to initiate concrete measures to prevent damage to the environment.

In addition to the above initiatives, there were various conventions held by the United Nations for environmental protection, such as:

  1. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for regulation of use of seas, harbours and marine resources
  2. Vienna Convention on Ozone Layer Protection, 1985, to have systematic research to understand the effect of ozone diffusion on environment & economic changes.
  3. Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, 1987, proved to be a legally binding treaty determined to protect the Ozone Layer by taking precautionary measures by controlling total global emissions of substances causing depletion of Ozone Layer.
  4. The Brundtland Commission Report, 1987, the Commission presented its report under the title “Our Common Future,” emphasising on the concept of “sustainable development.” As per the Commission, “sustainable development is the development which meets the needs of the present without compromising with the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.”

However, out of all the conventions held globally, the Stockholm Conference and the Brundtland Report laid the groundwork for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit or Rio Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992.

The Earth Summit, 1992

The Rio Summit or Earth Summit was particularly inspired by the Brundtland Report of 1987, which forced individuals and organisations to rethink emerging environmental problems from the perspective of sustainable development.

The Earth Summit-1992 made remarkable achievements in the form of the following important documents:

  • The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which framed the rights and obligations of the state signatories for environmental protection.
  • Agenda 21 is a blueprint for global action to adopt sustainable development for the protection of the environment.
  • The Convention on Climate Change aimed to prevent global climate change to avoid environmental degradation.
  • The Convention on Bio-diversity emphasises the conservation of                                   ecosystems.
  • Forest principles to support sustainable management of forests.

In support of the guidelines provided by the Earth Summit-1992, below are a few steps taken by the United Nations:

  1. UN Commission on Sustainable Development, 1993: The main objective of the Commission was to ensure effective follow of the principles laid down in the Earth Summit-1992 and enhance international cooperation. The commission was also to examine the progress of the implementation of Agenda 21 and submit its recommendation to the UN General Assembly.
  2. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): The Panel was to make periodic assessments of the scientific, technical and socio-economic impacts of climate change and suggest measures for improvement.
  3. The Earth Summit-1997: It was a special session of the UN Assembly to check on the progress of the responsibilities of the signatories assigned to the Earth Summit-1992. It is also known as Rio+5, as it was held five years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit-1992.

The Second Earth Summit, 2002

It was held to solve problems identified at the Earth Summit-1992 by fighting against poverty, overpopulation and climate change. It mainly focused on collective strength of member states and their cooperation, women’s empowerment, access to basic requirements, etc.

Below are a few more developments after the Second Earth Summit, 2002:

  1. The Kyoto Protocol of 2005 was another effort made by the UN to protect the global environment from pollution.
  2. The Copenhagen Accord of 2009, inspired by the Bali Action Plan of 2007, resulted in effective international responses to climate change.
  3. The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, was held in Cancun (Mexico). The signatories decided to lower the industrial carbon emission level. The summit successfully managed to resolve the disputes between the countries in relation to its objectives.
  4. To discuss the achievements and failures of the roadmap framed in the Earth Summit-1992, another Earth Summit was held in 2012, i.e., after 20 years, which is called the UN Environmental World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2012, also known as the Rio+20 Summit.

The UN Environmental World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2012 (the Rio+20 Summit)

It was attended by 172 government officials, heads of countries, many NGOs and environmental experts from different countries. It thoroughly discussed the documents of previous conventions and also made legally binding documents open for signature.

India, though it supported all the resolutions and upheld the principles of the conventions, expressed greater cooperation from developed countries to developing countries to achieve socio-economic growth for their populations.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

It was held in Paris to achieve a binding and universal agreement to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and the global warming effect. The organising committee expected an agreement to set up a goal of limiting global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and further below in the upcoming years. The commitments of the conference were estimated to limit global warming to 2.7 by 2100.

Impact on Indian Environmental Law

Let us try to understand how India has responded to a few of the major international conventions mentioned above.

Stockholm Conference, 1972

The conference inspired the Indian Parliamentary System to enact the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act-1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act-1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act-1986 to curb water, air and environmental pollution, respectively. These acts were formulated as per the guidelines provided in the conference, e.g., the formation of prevention and control boards at various levels and providing them with vast powers to punish the polluter.

The Forest (Conservation) Act-1980 was enacted to control deforestation and gave powers to appeal to the National Green Tribunal established under the National Green Tribunal Act- 2010.

The concept of Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) plays a very significant role in the protection of the environment and economic growth. This concept was formulated at the Stockholm Conference in 1972 and introduced in India in 1978 for a complete assessment of the environment by using various criteria before implementing government projects. It is mandatory for the government to conduct EIA before starting projects like mining, river valleys, thermal power, atomic power, airports, new towns and infrastructure.

The Brundtland Commission report, 1987

The report very specifically points out the importance of achieving every kind of growth together. It mainly focuses on the concept of “sustainable development.”.

The Supreme Court of India, for the first time in Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum vs. Union of India and Ors. (1996), has discussed the concept of sustainable development as being accepted as a part of the law of the land and given its decision in this case as per the “precautionary principle” and “polluter pays principle” of sustainable development. Thereafter, in various cases, the importance of sustainable development was emphasised by the Apex Court, such as the Bichhri Village case, Pradeep Krishen vs. Union of India and Ors. (1996), and the Bhopal Gas Disaster case. Also, the Schedule Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was enacted to protect the rights of aborigines living on forest produce.

The concept of sustainable development inspired Indian legislation to enact the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, to provide immediate relief to persons affected by accidents due to hazardous substances. It also paved the way for designing the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) as per the notification of 1991 to protect coastal areas and ocean resources from pollution.

The Earth Summit, 1992

 The Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, was amended in 2002 to meet the guidelines provided in Earth Summit, 1992 for the protection of wildlife in the reserved area as per the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, was enacted by the Indian Parliament to provide conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of biological resources and knowledge. The Act was to conserve and use biological diversity, to respect and protect the knowledge of the local community, to share the benefits with local people,and to protect and rehabilitate threatened species.

The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001, was enacted by the Parliament of India to recognise the contribution of private breeders as well as farmers in plant breeding activity, thus supporting biological diversity and helping to build a healthy ecosystem.

UNFCCC, 2015

India, being a signatory to the Paris agreement, submitted its new action plan to the Convention. The document Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) talks about India’s plan to prevent the average global temperature from rising by about two degrees Celsius and measures to be taken by the Republic of India.

Let us discuss some of the landmark judgements given by the Indian judiciary that are in line with international norms related to environmental protection to achieve sustainable development.

 In Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India and Ors. (1996) (popularly known as the BICHHRI village case): A toxic slug out of the plant percolated deep into the earth, polluting water in the wells and streams and rendering it unfit for human consumption. The Supreme Court directed the government to issue remedial measures, asked villagers to  claim for damages and also closed the plant with immediate effect.

This landmark judgement followed the “polluter pays principle” and emphasised the duty of the state to take care of public health.

In Tarun Bharat Sangh, Alwar vs. Union of India and Ors. (1993), the Supreme Court rejected the plea of the state government to allow private agencies to carry out mining operations inside areas notified as Sanctuary, National Park and other protected forests. Thus acting on the international regulations provided in the Earth Summit, to which India is a signatory.

India has been tirelessly working on the protection of the environment and formulating its national policies in accordance with the guidelines provided in further conventions such as the World Summit in 2002, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Rio+20 Summit in 2012.

In M. C. Mehta and Anr. vs. Union of India and Ors. (1987) (Oleum Gas Leakage Case), the oleum gas leakage case involved a fertiliser plant, Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd., in the densely populated area of Delhi. The plant emitted hazardous substances, posing a threat to the health of around 200,000 people residing nearby. As per the polluter pays principle, it was the strict liability of the company to pay for damages.

In M.C. Mehta vs. Union of India and Ors. (1996) (Taj Mahal Case), the Supreme Court directed the industries operating in the Taj Trapezium Zone causing harm to the Taj Mahal and surrounding area to relocate and also protected the right to livelihood of the workers of such industries. Thus practising the principles of sustainable development.


India, being an emerging superpower, has always acted responsibly towards its obligation to curb environmental protection issues. The Republic of India, through its organs like the judiciary, parliament and bureaucracy, strives hard to match international guidelines with Indian culture. It ensures that while coordinating with the international conventions, the traditional, social and cultural spirit of the Indian masses remains undisturbed.

India has also played a significant role in initiating international conventions and guiding the world to achieve the goal of sustainable development. While achieving socio-economic growth and protection of the environment, India strongly advocates protection of the interests of developing nations on every international forum. However, achieving the ultimate goal of socioeconomic growth as well as environmental protection still has a long way to go.


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