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Blog Special - I : The Sleepwalking into a Planetary Crisis: Invoking International law

Prof. Bharat H. Desai

In 2022, the world witnessed the 50 years of the global environmental movement at the Stockholm+50 Conference (June 2-3) and UNEP@50 as well as 30 years of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (June 4) and 40 years of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (December 10). Two mega Conference of Parties meetings of the universal conventions on climate change (COP27: November 6-20, 2022) and on biodiversity (COP15: December 7-19, 2022) were also held without any major splash. Both the conventions, adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, are yet to make critical difference with respect to attaining their primary objectives. These events and largely ‘framework convention’ processes with their in-built law-making mechanisms have shown the limits of the global conferencing techniques.

In his June 02, 2022 address at the Stockholm+50 Moment, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that we have not kept our promises on the environment since our consumption is “at the rate of 1.7 planets a year” that has placed “global well-being is in jeopardy”. The gathering storms indicate the planetary level environmental crisis. The coming events cast their shadows before. The humankind seems to be sleepwalking into an existential “triple planetary crisis”. It may be akin to the events of 1914 that led to the catastrophic World War – I.

The UN-led World Order

Built on the ashes of the League of Nations (1920-1945) after World War – I, the advent of the 1945 United Nations Charter has stood the test of time for 77 long years. Notwithstanding its limits, as the members driven international organization in a State-centric global order, the UN matters most for the humanity’s survival on the Earth. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has played a crucial role in institutionalizing law-making as well as institution-building processes [Bharat H Desai (2004), Institutionalizing International Environmental Law. New York: Transnational Publishers]. At each of the momentous occasions, through the instrumentality of its resolutions (UN Charter, Chapter IV), the UNGA took crucial decisions across wide canvass of its functions and powers that include convening of the major global conferences (1972, 1992, 2002, 2012 and 2022), established international environmental governance structures (UNEP, CSD, HLPF), took initiatives for launching inter-governmental negotiations (such as the three Rio Conventions: climate change, biodiversity, desertification) and provided mandates on several occasions for high-level informal consultations (such as the Global Pact for the Environment; UNGA resolution 73/733 of August 30, 2019). As the plenary organ with all the UN member states, the Assembly has played its vanguard role to address the world environmental problematique with varied levels of successes. The fact that the UNGA provides a springboard to the UN member States for an institutionalized cooperation, records the needs, aspirations and concerns of the time and comes out with consensual outcome of resolutions (recommendatory) with some normative legal significance (Asamoah, 1966) itself needs to be considered a blessing for the humankind. There is no other global forum at our disposal commanding such a universal reach, trust, competence and legitimacy.

Our only abode, planet Earth is in the Balance

The Stockholm Moments: 1972 and 2022

The 1972 Stockholm Moment was an outcome of the “Swedish initiative” that took the form of the UNGA resolution [2398 (XXIII), December 03, 1968: The problems of the human environment] and the resultant outcome, though under the UN auspices, had a strong Stockholm imprint. In contrast, as underscored by this author in his preface “The Stockholm Moment” [EPL 52 (3-4) 2022], the Stockholm+50 Conference was enabled by the UNGA through resolution 75/280 of May 24, 2021 (“Sweden to host and assume the cost” and “with the support of Kenya”) as well as mandated by resolution 75/326 of September 10, 2021 (“Sweden to host and assume the cost”; “with the support of Kenya”; “two Presidents, one from Sweden and one from Kenya”). These resolutions explicitly made the Swedish Government share the credits with the Kenyan Government. It was also expected that the “international meeting should be mutually reinforcing with UNEP@50, avoiding overlap and duplication”. In fact, the UNGA required “the United Nations Environment Program to serve as the focal point for providing support to the organization of the international meeting” and suggested to the Secretary-General “to appoint the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program as the Secretary-General of the international meeting”. It was also curious that commemoration of the 2022 Stockholm+50 Moment was parceled into two parts for a mere two-day event across two far-away continents: (i) UNEP@50 in Nairobi, March 3-4, 2022 and (ii) Stockholm+50 in Stockholm, June 2-3, 2022.

Cumulatively, in essence, the stage set was inherently robbed off the luster as regards the historical significance of the 2022 Stockhom+50 Moment. Possibly, keeping in mind the ground reality of the much-divided world, it showed that the effort was to be ‘politically correct’ rather than seize the Stockholm+50 Moment to ordain a rigorous revitalization of the existing international environmental legal instruments as well as the international environmental governance (IEG) architecture including structure, performance and location of UNEP. The organizing of the three leadership dialogues as well as Stockholm+50 Report (August 01, 2022) spelled out the five interconnected pathways (Figure 1) to provide altruist goals to weave together various global and regional processes for the healthy planet.

At the ‘act of origin’ (1972 Stockholm Moment), the deliberations were spread over June 5-16 whereas only two days (June 2-3, 2022) were given for the 50-year commemorative event (2022 Stockholm+50). Hence, nothing concrete could be expected except ritualistic sermons and inspirational statements. The UNSG’s repeated laments at Stockholm+50 and the UNGA speaks volumes about the lack of sensitivity and seriousness of the member States to grapple with the planetary crisis staring at the humankind and the Earth. Yet the sheer presence of the feisty UNSG has been a silver lining, almost akin to the plight of the lonely House Sparrow who ran from the pillar to the post by sprinkling little drops of water when her own forest was on fire!

The UNGA Needs to Take the Charge

It now appears, in the aftermath of the outcome of the 2022 Stockholm+50 Moment and in view of the gravity of the planetary crisis, the UNGA needs to rise to the occasion to take charge of the situation. The UNGA has already set the stage for Summit of the Future (UNGA resolution 76/307 of 8 September 2022) to be held in New York during September 22-23, 2024. As a corollary, the Assembly needs to chart the future roadmap to institutionalize the review, establish synergy and inter-linkages as well as determine the trajectory of some of the principal MEAs (with universal membership, such as UNFCCC, UNCCD and CBD) as well as determine the design of the futuristic IEG architecture that is warranted to address the planetary level environmental challenges of the 21st century.

Dr. Bharat H. Desai is Jawaharlal Nehru Chair and Professor of International Law at the Centre for International Legal Studies (SIS, JNU), contributes as the Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Policy and Law (IOS Press: Amsterdam) and served as a member of the official Indian Delegations to various multilateral negotiations (2002-2008) as well as coordinated the initiatives for Making SIS Visible (2008-2013) and the Inter-University Consortium: JNU; Jammu; Kashmir; Sikkim (2012-2020)


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