Multilateral Environmental Treaties
From BC Guide to Watershed Law & Planning
In the past 20 years, the number of environmental treaties, also known as multilateral environmental agreements or MEAs, has mushroomed. More than half of the over 500 existing global and regional MEAs have been adopted in the past 25 years. The range of issues that these treaties address has expanded significantly as well.
A “multilateral” treaty is a treaty between many countries. MEA can be contrasted with “bi-lateral” environmental agreements – environmental treaties signed between two countries only. Prior to 1972 most international environmental disputes were dealt with at the bilateral level, and many of Canada’s important international obligations related to the environment are still found in bilateral agreements between Canada and the U.S. With increased global concerns about environmental issues, however, there have been a series of efforts to develop new international laws to deal with the crisis.
As a general rule, governments have resisted agreeing to language and tools in MEAs that would make them more enforceable. A few MEAs do create tribunals which can rule on whether a country has violated the treaty, but this is the exception rather than the rule; even then, however, such challenges can only be brought by other countries. See the Guide page on International Law for information on the enforceability of international law in Canada.
Nonetheless, since Canada is morally and legally responsible (albeit without a lot of consequences) to ensure that MEAs are implemented, it can be worth complaining to politicians if high level policy decisions go against Canada’s international obligations. MEAs also sound impressive when cited in the media. They are less useful when dealing with site-specific decisions, unless that particular site is truly critical to meeting Canada’s international obligations.
Some key MEAs
The following are some of the MEAs that Canada is a party to which may be of interest to watershed protection advocates. This is not a comprehensive list, and for a more detailed discussion of MEAs in force in Canada see West Coast Environmental Law’s Kyoto, Pops and Straddling Stocks.
- Convention on Biological Diversity – Canada has committed generally to legislation which protects biological diversity; the federal government is attempting to meet this obligations through its Species At Risk Act (SARA), but the lack of meaningful protection for Endangered Species at the provincial level continues to be an international embarrassment (see the guide’s Wildlife Act – Protection for Specific Species page for more information).
- Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species – Since 1975 Canada has participated in this international agreement to prevent the trade in endangered animals or animal parts.
- Ramsar Convention (Wetlands Treaty) – The Ramsar Convention requires signatory countries to identify wetlands of international significance and more generally to promote the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Canada has 36 sites currently identified, and 28 of those have management plans in place under the treaty.
- The World Heritage Convention – In 1972 the World Heritage Convention established a system of collective protection for cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value. “Natural heritage” includes natural features, geological formations and areas that constitute the habitat of threatened species and natural sites, of universal, aesthetic, scientific or conservation value. Under this treaty, Parties designate cultural and natural heritage sites within their territories and agree to take measures for their protection, preservation and presentation. The treaty establishes a World Heritage Committee as a decision-making body; a World Heritage List of Sites designated under the Convention and a World Heritage Fund financed by the Parties, which grants financial assistance for heritage protection.
- Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste Treaty – Also known as the Basel Convention, this treaty regulates the export of hazardous waste. In Canada the treaty is implemented through Export and Import of Hazardous Waste regulations enacted under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
There are too many MEAs dealing with too many issues to summarize more than a fraction of the relevant agreements here. Watershed advocates interested in using MEAs will wish to consult other resources.
Related Guide Pages:
For more information about Multilateral Environmental Agreements: