Exceptions in International Environmental Law

Dr James Harrison, Senior Lecturer in International Law,

University of Edinburgh School of Law

Wednesday 10th February 2016 at 5.30pm

Carnegie Lecture Theatre, CEPMLP


International environmental law is a field of international law that calls for international cooperation between states to achieve the collective aim of preventing and reducing harm to the natural environment.  Needless to say, international environmental law does not exist in a vacuum.  States have many other aims, which they must balance with their desire to protect the environment. One way of achieving sufficient flexibility in international environmental law is to incorporate exceptions into the legal framework, thus allowing a state to deviate from the general rules in specific circumstances.  Many international environmental treaties contain such exceptions and it is the interpretation and application of these exceptions that is the focus of this paper.

To begin with, the paper will briefly consider the nature of exceptions in international law and their key characteristics. The paper will then turn to a discussion of the different types and forms of exceptions in international environmental treaties. In this respect, it will consider the types of policy goals that are generally covered by exceptions in environmental treaties, as well as the various institutional mechanisms that are employed to oversee the exercise of exceptions with a view to preventing their abuse. This part of the paper will explain and evaluate four sets of environmental treaties which typify different approaches to the control of exceptions, namely the London Dumping Convention and Protocol (post hoc and prior review of exceptions); the Stockholm POPs Convention and Minamata Mercury Convention (periodic institutional review of exceptions); the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (prior technical review of exceptions). The paper will also consider the potential role of international courts and tribunals in policing the use of exceptions under international environmental treaties, whilst noting the limitations in this respect.

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