Countries have negotiated many international agreements to protect the environment and to conserve natural resources. While some of these agreements existed before the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, most have been negotiated since then. The rate at which important agreements are concluded is increasing. The substantive and procedural duties contained in the agreements have become more stringent and comprehensive, and the range of issues subject to such agreements has expanded. Most observers anticipate calls for more international agreements to protect the global environment.
Yet international agreements are only as effective as the parties make them. While it has been said that most states comply with most international agreements most of the time, there are reasons to believe that national implementation of and compliance with international agreements is not always effective and that whatever implementation does take place varies significantly among countries.“Without better knowledge, it is impossible to assess their effectiveness in protecting the global environment or to evaluate the merits of proposed agreements.”
Knowledge about the implementation of and compliance with international environmental agreements is limited. Without better knowledge, it is impossible to assess their effectiveness in protecting the global environment or to evaluate the merits of proposed agreements. Formally-binding international agreements are only one of the available instruments for dealing with global environmental issues. One cannot appropriately weigh the advantages of negotiating a treaty to obtain global environmental goals, as compared to relying on market forces or education, without knowing more about what states tend to do in their execution of treaties. Nor is it possible to make sensible suggestions about measures that might be taken to improve the implementation of and compliance with existing and proposed accords.
Workshop on national implementation
As a first step in understanding these issues of national implementation and compliance, the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change convened a workshop on National Implementation of International Accords, in Hamilton, Bermuda, on March 15–17, 1990.1The workshop was organized by the authors. Participants included Piers M. Blaikie, University of East Anglia; Stephen Bunker, University of Wisconsin; Abram Chayes, Georgetown University; William C. Clark, Harvard University; Joel Darmstadter, Resources for the Future (Washington, D.C.); James V. Feinerman, Georgetown University; Michael J. Glennon, University of California, Davis; Ronald J. Herring, Northwestern University; Michel Oksenberg, University of Michigan; Steve Rayner, Oak Ridge National Laboratories; Alberta Sbragia, University of Pittsburgh; Thomas C. Schelling, Harvard University; The Hon. Stephen M. Schwebel, International Court of Justice, the Hague; Eugene B. Skolnikoff, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and William Zimmerman, University of Michigan. Richard C. Rockwell and Shelley Crandall served as staff. Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the workshop brought together area and functional specialists from several different disciplines—international relations, economic and international law. Country or regional specialists included experts on Africa, Brazil, China, India, Japan, the United States, and Western Europe.
The workshop marked the inauguration of a research project to analyze the factors that determine how international agreements are implemented and complied with in various countries. Participants noted the importance of distinguishing between implementation and compliance, with implementation referring to the formal legislation or regulations that are adopted by states to comply with the agreement, and compliance referring to the observance of these regulations and of the commitments contained in the international accord. As has become evident with respect to human rights treaties, compliance with international accords can change and improve over time. The planned research will seek to understand how improvement might be induced.
Among the international agreements considered were:
- The Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972.
- The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), 1973.
- The International Tropical Timber Agreement, 1983.
- The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, 1985; and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, 1987.
Factors that affect compliance
The discussion illuminated the many factors which affect national compliance. These include the policy history of the negotiation of the agreement, the characteristics of the agreement, the characteristics of the state and its government structures and processes, its economic condition, the role of international intergovernmental organizations, the role of nongovernmental organizations (both local and transnational), the role of transnational organizations such as multinational corporations, the importance of scientific information and conditions of access to the information, the behavior of other states who are parties to the agreement, the technical and economic characteristics of the problem that is the subject of the agreement, the importance of cultural traditions, and the importance of individual leaders. The nature of the domestic forces arrayed for and against agreement, as well as possible shifts in response to external shocks in the system, might also be considered, as well as the nature of the shifts themselves. Some of these factors have higher priority than others in the planned research project.
The character of the substance (chlorofluorocarbons in the Vienna Convention and Montreal Protocol) or activity (trade in endangered species) being regulated is a basic factor. Some substances or activities have little economic importance, while others have consequences for entire economies. Some are easy to monitor; others can only be detected through very intrusive measures. The costs and benefits of regulating substances and activities and the distribution of these costs among various social classes and geographical regions can also be important.
The country’s policy history with respect to the substance or activity being regulated is another basic factor. What was the country doing about the substance or activity prior to adhering to the international accord? What role did the country play in the negotiation of the accord?
The treaty itself is also an important factor. Some issues relate to the process by which the treaty was negotiated. How was the treaty process initiated? What form did the negotiation take? Were issues settled consensually or by majority vote? What was the extent and depth of the agreement?
The substantive characteristics of the treaty also raise important issues. What is the nature of the obligations contained in the treaty? Are they precise duties, or are they hortatory? What compliance mechanisms are contained in the agreements? How does the agreement treat countries that do not join? The Montreal Protocol and CITES obligate parties not to trade controlled substances with countries that are not parties to the agreement. How effective is this provision in inducing compliance?
The cultural, social, economic, and political characteristics of the countries will also influence implementation and compliance. In shaping a country’s action in implementing and complying with international environmental accords, what is the relative importance of it broad political culture, the level of it economic development, and the trajectory and pace of its economic growth? What difference does it make whether the country has a market or a planned economy? If the economy is mixed, does it make a difference in which sector the substance or activity is included? What are the effects of the characteristics of the political system? How strong and effective is the bureaucracy, and what difference does this make? What is the strength of nongovernmental groups, including those engaged in interest aggregation and articulation? What is the nature of the legal system? What procedures are required to adopt the regulation or other strategies necessary to implement the agreement?“A research protocol will be developed to facilitate systematic analysis across area studies and disciplines.”
As a next step it is anticipated that there will be a research project to study these questions in depth, which will produce a book. The study will analyze what selected countries have done to implement and comply with several international environmental accords and will address the factors that have influenced compliance or non-compliance. There will also be cross-cutting analyses which look at the international legal and institutional factors that affect compliance across a broad range of agreements and the economic factors that affect it. A research protocol will be developed to facilitate systematic analysis across area studies and disciplines.
The proposed study hopes to facilitate assessment of the usefulness of international accords in protecting the environment and conserving natural resources, and to contribute to the drafting of new international accords so as to maximize the chances of national compliance.
Harold K. Jacobson (1929–2001) was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and a member of the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change. Edith Brown Weiss is the Francis Cabell Brown Professor of International Law at Georgetown University Law Center and served as chair to the committee. Jacobson and Brown Weiss coedited Engaging Countries: Strengthening Compliance with International Environmental Accords (MIT Press, 1998), with research made possible by research grants from the Council and done under the auspices of the Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change.
This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 44, No. 2-3 in June-September of 1990.Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.