I. JURISPRUDENTIAL BACKGROUND AND THEORETICAL ISSUES
To date, traditional international law does not consider human environmental rights to a clean and healthy environment to be a jus cogens human right. Jus cogens (“compelling law”) refers to preemptory legal principles and norms that are binding on all international States, regardless of their consent. They are non-derogable in the sense that States cannot make a reservation to a treaty or make domestic or international laws that are in conflict with any international agreement that they have ratified and thus to which they are a party. They “prevail over and invalidate international agreements and other rules of international law in conflict with them… [and are] subject to modification only by a subsequent norm… having the same character.” (1) Thus, they are the axiomatic and universally accepted legal norms that bind all nations under jus gentium (law of nations). For example, some U.N. Charter provisions and conventions against slavery or torture are considered jus cogens rules of international law that are nonderogable by parties to any international convention.
While the international legal system has evolved to embrace and even codify basic, non-derogable human rights (2), the evolution of environmental legal regimes have not advanced as far. While the former have found a place at the highest level of universally recognized legal rights, the latter have only recently and over much opposition, reached a modest level of recognition as a legally regulated activity within the economics and politics of sustainable development.
1. The international legal community recognizes the same sources of international law as does the United States’ legal system. The three sources of international law are stated and defined in the Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States (R3dFRLUS), Section 102. The first source is Customary International Law (CIL), defined as the “general and consistent practice of states followed out of a sense of legal obligation” (3) (opinio juris sive necessitatus), rather than out of moral obligation. Furthermore, CIL is violated whenever a State, “as a matter of state policy,… practices, encourages or condones (a) genocide, (b) slavery… (c) the murder or causing the disappearance of individuals, (d) torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment… or (g) a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” (4) To what extent such human rights need to be “internationally recognized” is not clear, but surely a majority of the world’s nations must recognize such rights before a “consistent pattern of gross violations” results in a violation of CIL. CIL is analogous to “course of dealing” or “usage of trade” in the domestic commercial legal system.
Evidence of CIL includes “constitutional, legislative, and executive promulgations of states, proclamations, judicial decisions, arbitral awards, writings of specialists on international law, international agreements, and resolutions and recommendations of international conferences and organizations.” (5) It follows that such evidence is sufficient to make “internationally recognized human rights” protected under universally recognized international law. Thus, CIL can be created by the general proliferation of the legal acknowledgment (opinio juris) and actions of States of what exactly constitutes “internationally recognized human rights.”
2. The next level of binding international law is that of international agreements (treaties), or Conventional International Law. Just as jus cogens rights and rules of law, as well as CIL, are primary and universally binding legal precepts, so do international treaties form binding international law for the Party Members that have ratified that treaty. The same way that some States’ domestic constitutional law declares the basic human rights of each State’s citizens, so do international treaties create binding law regarding the rights delineated therein, according to the customary international jus gentium principle of Silencil pacta sunt servanda (agreements are to be respected). Treaties are in turn internalized by the domestic legal system as a matter of law. Thus, for example, the U.N Charter’s provision against the use of force is binding international law on all States and it, in turn, is binding law in the United States, for example, and on its citizens. (6) Treaties are analogous to “contracts” in the domestic legal system.
Evidence of Conventional International Law includes treaties, of course, as well as related material, interpreted under the usual canons of construction of relying on the text itself and the words’ ordinary meanings. (7) Often, conventional law has to be interpreted within the context of CIL. (8) As a practical matter, treaties are often modified by amendments, protocols and (usually technical) annexes. Mechanisms exist for “circumventing strict application of consent” by the party states. Generally, these mechanisms include “framework or umbrella conventions that merely state general obligations and establish the machinery for further norm-formulating devices… individual protocols establishing particular substantive obligations… [and] technical annexes.” (9) Most of these new instruments “do no require ratification but enter into force in some simplified way.” (10) For example, they may require only signatures, or they enter into force for all original parties when a minimum number of States ratify the modification or unless a minimum number of States object within a certain time frame, or goes into force for all except those that object. (11) Depending on the treaty itself, once basic consensus is reached, it is not necessary for all to consent to certain modifications for them to go into effect. “[I]n a sense these are instances of an IGO [(international governmental organization)] organ ‘legislating’ directly for [S]tates.” (12)
3. Finally, rules of international law are also derived from universal General Principles of Law “common to the major legal systems of the world.” (13) These “general principles of law” are principles of law as such, not of international law per se. While many consider these general principles to be a secondary source of international law that “may be invoked as supplementary rules… where appropriate” (14), some consider them on an “footing of formal equality with the two positivist elements of custom and treaty”. (15) Examples are the principles of res judicata, equity, justice, and estoppel. Frequently, these rules are inferred by “analogy to domestic law concerning rules of procedure, evidence and jurisdiction.” (16) However, “while shared concepts of of internal law can be used as a fall-back, there are sever limits because of the characteristic differences between international law and internal law.” (17) Evidence of General Principles of Law includes “municipal laws, doctrine and judicial decisions.” (18)