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The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in June 1972, was the event that turned the environment into a major issue at the international level. The conference drew together both developed and developing countries, but the former Soviet Union and most of its allies did not attend.

The Stockholm Conference produced a Declaration of 26 Principles and an Action Plan of 109 recommendations. A few specific targets were set - a 10-year moratorium on commercial whaling, prevention of deliberate oil discharges at sea by 1975 and a report by 1975 on energy uses. The Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment and Principles constituted the first body of 'soft law' in international environmental affairs (Long 2000). The principles are loosely paraphrased in the box.

The conference also established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, see box) as 'the environmental conscience of the UN system'.

The birth of the United Nations Environment Programme

The Stockholm Conference recommended the creation of a small secretariat in the
United Nations as a focal point for environmental action and coordination within the
UN system. This was established later in 1972 under the name of the United
Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and was headed by an executive director
whose responsibilities included:

  • providing support to UNEP's Governing Council;
  • coordinating environmental programmes within the United Nations system;
  • advising on the formulation and implementation of environmental programmes;
  • securing the cooperation of scientific and other professional communities from all parts of the world;
  • advising on international cooperation in the field of the environment; and
  • submitting proposals on medium and long-range planning for United Nations programmes in the environment field.

UNEP's mission today 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'.

It is easy to claim that many of the major environmental milestones of the 1970s followed directly from Stockholm. It is important to remember, however, that Stockholm was itself a reflection of the mood of the times, or at least of the views of many in the West. That said, it is still instructive to itemize some of the major changes that followed Stockholm.

  • Stockholm articulated the right of people to live 'in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being'. Since then, a number of organizations, including the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and about 50 governments worldwide, have adopted instruments or national constitutions that recognize the environment as a fundamental human right (Chenje, Mohamed-Katerere and Ncube 1996).
  • Much national legislation on the environment followed Stockholm. During 1971-75, 31 major national environmental laws were passed in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), compared to just 4 during 1956-60, 10 during 1960-65 and 18 during 1966-70 (Long 2000).
  • The environment entered or was brought much nearer the top of many regional and national agendas. For example, before Stockholm there were only about 10 ministries of environment; by 1982 some 110 countries had such ministries or departments (Clarke and Timberlake 1982).