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close this bookEnvironmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions (UNU, 1992, 493 pages)
close this folderIssues in international environmental law
close this folder7. The legislation and implementation of international environmental law and the third world: the example of China
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAn overview of international environmental legislation and its implementation
View the documentThe status of third-world states in international environmental legislation and its implementation
View the documentSome personal views and suggestions to encourage a more positive role of the third world in the legislation and implementation of international environmental law
View the documentNotes
View the documentAppendix: a case-study: China's positive attitude toward the adoption and implementation of international environmental legislation
View the documentNotes

The status of third-world states in international environmental legislation and its implementation

It can be asserted that nowadays no country can effectively protect its environment and solve its various environmental problems on its own. No matter how advanced its science and technology are or how perfect the means of legislation and implementation of environmental law are, an independent effort to resolve global problems is not enough. Global problems require a global effort. To name a few, the problems include pollution of the atmosphere, of marine life, of coastal and inland waters, and of all areas reached by acid rain.

We can also say with certainty that no country on its own is able to pay the cost of environmental damage, including the ever-increasing cost of the new technologies developed to remedy the damages caused by pollution. Since we have only one earth and given that the international community is an organic whole, it could also be asserted that man's endeavour to solve global environmental problems will not be accomplished and will be of no avail if we fail to bring into play every positive factor and unite all available forces.

Given this situation, contemporary international jurists have clearly realized that the settlement of environmental issues, the drafting of legislation, and the implementation of international environmental law must take into account the contributions and the needs of third-world countries. The participation of third-world countries in international environmental protection, legislation, and implementation of international environmental law is very relevant.

As a matter of fact, although limited by insufficient resources and by unbalanced economies, the third-world countries deserve the following observations regarding the arena of international environmental protection:

1. The rise of the third world has indeed been the greatest event of our times. Ninety newly independent states (including Namibia, which proclaimed its independence recently) were established after the Second World War. Thirty states already threw off the yoke of colonialism before the Second World War.18 These states constitute a majority, since the total number of states in the world is about 167. Third-world countries all share the same historical experience of material and cultural gains under colonialism that are the reason for their current economic underdevelopment and scientific backwardness. They stand for the common historical goals of eliminating North-South disparities, developing their national economies, and consolidating their economic and political independence. Even though these countries are in the category of third world, they are a highly productive force that must not be underestimated if implementation of international environmental law is going to succeed. Fortunately, in the world community, they not only enjoy rights and undertake duties under international law, but they also enjoy the same sovereign rights as the more developed countries. The third world joins with the others in formulating international rules and participating in international legal processes.


It is imperative that the third world make a more appropriate contribution to the formulation of international environmental law. The adoption of the Declaration on the Human Environment in 1972,19 the enactment of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982,20 the adoption of Resolution 1803 (XVII) by the United Nations General Assembly in 1962,21 and the enactment and the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development in 1986 22 could not have transpired without the great support and efforts by third-world countries.

2. The present economic situation of third-world nations is in part the result of low levels of development, their backward industry, and outdated agricultural methods. It is understandable why their economies have vestiges of colonialism. The third-world nations, with 70 per cent of the world's population, subsist on only 30 per cent of the world's GNP. Their per capita income is only one-twelfth of that of the other countries, and the discrepancy is still rising. At the recent UN conference of the least-developed states, in Paris, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar said: "in the past decade, the social and economic situations in the most undeveloped nations worsened, GNP per capita decreased and the amount of foreign trade was only one percent of that of world trade."23 In addition, although these countries contain and produce the main portion of the world's energy and raw materials, three-fourths of the oil supply, one-third to one-half of the world's most important non-ferrous metals and many other minerals, they only utilize a small portion of their wealth for themselves, most of these materials satisfying the needs of the developed countries for energy and raw materials.


It would be very one-sided and would not conform with the actual situation, if we argued that the main difficulties in the legislation and implementation of international environmental law should be attributed to the weak economic bases and low productive levels of third-world states. Even if it were true, developed countries cannot shift all the responsibility and blame to the third-world countries. On the contrary, the developed countries must give more support and cooperation in this joint undertaking of international environmental protection in light of the limited economic and social capacity of third-world nations as well as their inadequate scientific and technological levels. Nevertheless third-world countries should rely on their own resources to overcome the obstacles to environmental improvements.

3. Generally speaking the environmental problems facing developed countries are caused by their excessive discharge of hazardous substances, which affect not only themselves but also their neighbours, and ultimately threaten other areas of the world. In third-world states, the predominant cause of environmental problems is underdevelopment. The objective facts show that developed countries should bear major responsibility for global environmental degradation: misguided industrial development and overconsumption by developed countries are the main causes of the greenhouse effect, the excessive release of chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs), causing the ozone depletion, and the excessive diffusion of SO2, causing acid rain.


Although developed countries and third-world nations are both responsible for global environmental degradation, there are profound differences between the way each has contributed to that degradation. Underdevelopment and lack of environmental sensitivity are the main explanations for third-world contribution to environmental problems. The underdevelopment results from the prolonged colonial plunder, control, exploitation, and oppression to which they have been subjected. As a result, their natural resources and environments were seriously harmed and wasted. Today, because of the combined effects of a weak economic base, irrational economic structures, a low level of science and technology, overpopulation with no sign of improvement, as well as heavy domestic and foreign indebtedness, these countries are unable to sustain the financial and technological burdens necessary to substantially improve the environment. Although they have attained independence, in order to survive, some of these countries have no alternatives but to interact with the environment in a destructive manner. This result is inevitable because in balancing the economic viability of a country against the need to protect the environment, the former will invariably win.

Furthermore, as the international environment continues to deteriorate, the third-world states will be less and less able to clean up their own environments. This is further complicated by the indifference of the developed countries toward the developmental problems of third-world countries. For example, several delegations at the ninth session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme, in May 1981, called attention to the problem of "hazardous chemicals being exported to developing countries" and "to the need for co-operation with relevant international programmes, particularly the International Programme on Chemical Safety.24

It can be concluded from the above that third-world states are not only the owners of tremendous natural and environmental resources, but they also are the principal victims of environmental pollution. The third-world nations contain the majority of the world's population; they are an indispensable force in the legislation and implementation of international environmental law. They have become promoters and drafters of legislation affecting the international environment.