Assessing the Role of International Organizations and States in Managing

This essay evaluates the claim that international organisations are the best placed to manage environmental challenges involving common resources. The essay only partly agrees with the claim. This essay argues that while international organisations do play an important role in management of environmental challenges, evidence also suggests that success in management of environmental challenges involving common resources also depends on the actions of the states. In other words, without the cooperation of states, success in management of environmental challenges may not be achieved.

The strength of the claim that international organisations are the best placed for managing environmental challenges involving common resources is that international organisations can negotiate the conflicts that individual states may have over the common resources and which come in the way of management of the environmental challenges related to the common resources. This is discussed first below.


Common resources are sources of common resource goods that can be defined as those goods that are “non-excludable but rivalrous in consumption” because the benefits from these resources are fixed in nature and are available to all in common (Berith, 2017, p. 15). Common woods, mineral resources, fish stocks, are some of the examples of common resource goods and common resources include that which is now called as common heritage of the mankind, like open seas (Sands, 2003). The principle of ‘common heritage of mankind’ was developed by the international community to respond to the jurisdictional claims by states over terra nullius, like the open seas (Noyes, 2011). Indeed, the international organisations like the United Nations have taken a prominent position in formulating international laws such as the 1982 UNCLOS to respond to the management of the common resources (Rayfuse & Warner, 2008). The deep sea bed and the ocean floor were consequently recognised as the common heritage of mankind (Rothwell & Stephens, 2016). Because the common resources (such as a lake for fish stock), are the source for common resource goods, there are often competing claims on these resources between different states of the world.

While states play an important role in managing environmental challenges relating to common resources, the peculiar challenges for states vis a vis common resources also means that international organisations are required to play a prominent role to manage environmental challenges involving common resources. For instance, while the principle of common heritage of mankind was developed by the international community through the United Nations 1982 UNCLOS Convention, the provisions are regulated by the International Seabed Authority (Lodge, 2012). In one sense, it may be said that the international organisations are better placed than individual governments because for individual governments managing of common resources may present certain challenges, particularly related to conflict between states over the common resources. Common resources can at times become a source of conflict between individual states, with more than one state claiming sovereignty over the resources, as is seen in the case of South China seas (Tanaka, 2008). In such situations, the intervention of the international organisation may be required to address the conflict and play a role in resolving it. Another example of common resource related conflict that needed the intervention of an international organisation, in this case, the UN, is that relating to piracy in the seas around Somalia.

Therefore, it can be clearly seen that international organisations do play an important role in managing environment challenges with respect to common resources. The development of the international consciousness related to management of environmental challenges is one of the important events of the 20th century. Through the development of this global environmental imagination, international organisations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have come to be established as examples of international organisations that are dealing with environmental management (Lodge, 2012). An example of how international organisations can play a prominent role in management of environmental challenges related to common resources is in the Mediterranean regional organisation, which has formulated the “Blue Plan” that is set within the framework of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP); the Blue Plan is created for the purpose of management of common environmental resources relating to the sea in the Mediterranean region (Aliboni, 2000).

The weakness of the claim made out in this essay is that states’ cooperation is essential to the management of the environmental challenges related to the common resources. Although, there are competing claims between states related to the common resources, which are expressed in terms of sovereignty or rights in relation to the common resource, states have also played a role in managing these competing claims, particularly through the development of the concept of ‘common responsibility’ and more recently ‘common concern’ under the 1992 Climate Change Convention. The concept of ‘common responsibility’ and ‘common concern’ relates to the shared obligations of two or more states to protect particular environmental resources (Sands, 2003, p. 286). The common concern with such resources has led to formation of the bilateral and multilateral arrangements; an early example is the 1949 Inter-American Tropical Tuna Convention, which declared tuna and other fish to be of common concern to the State Parties. This is also an example of how states play a role in creating measures aimed at protecting common resources.

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Indeed, one aspect of the development of the concept of common heritage of mankind is that it indicates at times the co-management of an area between two or more countries, where the countries cooperate in not exploiting the resources of the area that is outside the scope of their national jurisdiction (Goedhius, 1981). This has been done by states through bilateral arrangements or even multilateral arrangements, but the states’ cooperation becomes necessary for the achievement of these aims. For example, UNCLOS creates certain obligations on the part of the states for the safeguarding of the sea bed and ocean floor as the common heritage areas under Article 137. Article 137 restraints states from claiming sovereignty over common resources and prohibits appropriation of resources. Furthermore, Article 139 creates liability for damage in case of violation of Article 137. Developing or underdeveloped countries have come to regard Article 137 as a tool to prevent exploitation of common resources by the Western countries (Frakes, 2003). At the same time, these provisions in the UNCLOS suggest that the international organisations would not be able to achieve the management of environmental challenges in common areas without the cooperation by states. If states refuse to abide by these obligations there is little that can be done by most international organisations to enforce these. For example, in the Southern Bluefin Tuna cases (Australia and New Zealand v Japan), the International Seabed Authority was found to lack an exhaustive regime of jurisdiction to deliver binding decisions against states (Klein, 2005). On the other hand, it is seen that if states so desire and enter into bilateral or regional arrangements to protect common resources as in the case of establishment of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Convention, the results can be positive in terms of protection of the common resources (Sands, 2003).

To conclude, international organisations have played an important role in the management of environmental challenges but it would be wrong to say that they are only best placed to do so. States too can play and have played important roles in this context.

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