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United Nations Environment Programme


The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established in 1972. It addresses the environmental issues at the global and regional level for the United Nations. One of its key mandates is to promote the development and implementation of international environmental law. Its mission is “to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. This programme is one of the leading Environmental authority in the United nations system and it uses its expertise to strengthen Environmental standards and practices to implement Environmental obligation at the country, regional and global levels.

A marked change in the language of debate on international and national security has taken place in the past decade. In the international arena, the importance of economic as well as military stability is now recognized. In the last three years, environmental concerns have emerged as a major theme.

International legal instruments, including binding conventions, proto-cols, and nonbinding guidelines, constitute increasingly important mechanisms for achieving bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the field of the environment.

Since its inception in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has played a significant role in the development of international environmental law. It has negotiated and obtained adoption of nearly thirty binding multilateral instruments, including the landmark 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol), as well as ten sets of nonbinding environmental law guidelines and principles. UNEP serves as secretariat to a number of environmental conventions, offers technical    assistance to developing countries in the formulation of environmental legislation, and publishes a set of reference texts for international environmental law scholars and practitioners.

Stockholm conference,1972

The UN’s first conference on international environmental issues was held on Stockholm from June 5 to 16, 1972 and this conference made a significant turning point in the international environmental issues. The main object of the conference is to consider a need for a common outlook and for a common principle that will result in the enhancement of a better environment. The General assembly decided to encourage and provide guidelines for the development of a better human environment as a result of this conference the United Nation Environment Programme was formed with the objectives of informing, inspiring, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without causing harm to the environment.

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Structure of UNEP

UNEP has an executive office and seven main divisions:

  1. Communication division
  2. Economic division
  3. Ecosystem division
  4. Law division
  5. Science division
  6. Policy and programme division
  7. Corporate service division

UNEP also has six regional offices for Africa, Asia, Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America and West Asia which ensures close cooperation with these regions. The headquarters of UNEP is situated in Nairobi, KENYA.

Environmental Law Program

 In accordance with the various decisions of the Governing Council, UNEP’s environmental law program has concentrated on a broad range of global environmental problems. UNEP drafted, negotiated, and obtained adoption and entry into force of the Vienna Convention for presently serves as the secretariat for these agreements. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is recognized as a cross-cutting priority across all aspects of UNEP’s work. UNEP promotes men and women’s participation in all environmental protection and sustainable development activities. Moreover various environmental issues like climate change, including the Territorial Approach to Climate Change (TACC), ecosystem management, environmental governance, harmful substances and resource efficiency have been handled by UNEP in an efficient manner by implementing various conventions.

UNEP Assembly:

The fourth United Nation Environment Assembly was held in March 2019. Various Ministers and delegated authorities around the world gathered for this programme in Nairobi, Kenya. A wide range of environmental issues was discussed in this Assembly. The 2019 Assembly’s theme was “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production.”EPA played a leadership role as an integral part of the U.S. interagency team, including on the adoption of resolutions on the following topics:

  • Curbing food loss and waste
  • Preventing marine litter and microplastics
  • Development and periodic review of environmental law 
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Environmental Rule of law

Although, the environmental laws are framed from 1970’s, we are witnessing a steady increase in the environmental issues till now, due to the failure of the working mechanism of these environmental laws. As of now 176 countries have implemented environmental framework laws, 150 countries have enshrined a constitutional right to a healthy environment and 164 countries have created cabinet level bodies responsible for environmental protection but still now it is a huge challenge to overcome the environmental issues. The UNEP published a report on January 2019, to overcome these challenges and to introduce “Environmental Rule of Law” for addressing gaps between environmental law on papers and in practice. Environmental rule of law plays a major role in sustainable development and it integrates environmental issues with other elements of the rule of law and provides the base for improving the environmental governance. Without environmental rule of law and the enforcement of legal rights and obligations, the governance of environmental challenges may be arbitrary i.e. discretionary, subjective and unpredictable. The farmer laws had an environmental goal but they sabotage themselves before they even come into force. This modern set of environmental law is making new changes in the working of environmental law by not only focusing on specific environmental problems, but also on underlying systematic issues. The environmental rule of law sets out a seven guiding principle:

  1. Fair, clear and implementable environmental laws
  2. Access to information, public participation and access to justice
  3. Accountability and integrity of institutions and decision makers
  4. Clear and coordinated mandates and rules across and within institutions
  5. Accessible, fair, impartial, timely and responsive dispute resolution mechanism
  6. Recognising the mutually enforcing relationship between  rights and the environmental rule of law
  7. Specific criteria for courts to interpret environmental law.


 The United Nations Environment Programme has contributed greatly to the development of international environmental law. Its approach has been first to formulate scientific positions, then develop legal strategies, and in the process carefully build political support. Historically, UNEP has negotiated legal instruments which seek to place direct controls on environmentally harmful activities.  UNEP has also begun to develop mechanisms for evaluating the effectiveness of environmental control regimes. UNEP’s landmark 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer took an important first step in this direction. The 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, however, retreated to a strategy of direct controls. 

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  1. Report of the conference of the parties to the Vienna convention for the protection of ozone layer
  2. International legal instruments in the field of the Environment, Decision 15/31 of the governing council of UNEP.
  3.  Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, adopted and opened for signature Sept. 16, 1987, (entered into force Jan. 1, 1989)
  4.  Mathews, Redefining Security, 68 FOREIGN AFF. 2, 162-77 (1989) (suggesting the broadening of the definition of national security to encompass resource, environmental, and demographic issues);
  5. Vienna convention

Cite this article (The Bluebook 20th ed.)-

Sundari S. and Muthu Ram R., United Nations Environment Programme, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (October 4, 2020),

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Sundari S.
Student - SASTRA Deemed to be University
Muthu Ram R.
Student - School of Excellence in Law, The Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University.