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New Zealand's International Obligations

Obligations under international law are mainly aimed at preserving nations' rights over their own territory. However, a new ethic of environmental responsibility is emerging as awareness grows that some environmental problems cross national boundaries, and that some forms of international trade have environmental implications.

The main method available under international law for combined state action on is the multi-lateral environmental agreement, or MEA (See Guruswamy et al., 1994). MEAs may take the form of 'soft-law', which sets out the environmental principles that parties will respect when considering actions affecting a particular issue, or 'hard-law', which specifies particular actions that must be taken to achieve a given environmental objective. In the past two decades, New Zealand has entered many multi-lateral environmental agreements (see Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4: New Zealand's increasing international commitments on the Environment

In the decade from 1950 to 1960 New Zealand was committed to one multilateral environmental agreement (MEA). In the three decades since 1960, which saw milestones such as the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), the number of MEAs that New Zealand is committed to has increased dramatically, to be around 45 in 1995.

A number of important agreements were entered into at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or 'The Earth Summit'), which was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (see Box 4.4). The 'Earth Summit' produced five key documents on sustainable development issues, all of which New Zealand has endorsed. Of these, two are 'hard law'-the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change; and three are 'soft law'-the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, and the Forest Principles.

One of the conventions agreed at the 1992 'Earth Summit', the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), develops a global response to managing climate change. Its primary objective is "to achieve stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

FCCC commitments made by New Zealand along with other developed countries (referred to as Annex I Parties) include:

  • adopt national policies to mitigate climate change through limiting anthropogenic (human-induced) emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing our greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs;
  • report detailed information on greenhouse gas inventories, national actions and projected human-induced greenhouse gas emissions and removal by sinks;
  • take climate change considerations into account, to the extent that it is feasible, in relevant social, economic and environmental policies and actions;
  • promote, and cooperate in, relevant scientific and technological research and exchange information in such areas (including technology transfer to developing countries);
  • provide new and additional financial resources to meet the agreed full costs incurred by developing countries in complying with their obligations under the FCCC;
  • promote and cooperate in education, training and public awareness related to climate change and encourage the widest participation in this process.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is another product of the Rio Conference (ratified by New Zealand on 29 December 1993). Biological diversity is the variety of all life-forms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems in which they exist (see Chapter 9). The CBD aims to conserve biological diversity for its intrinsic value, for our sustainable use of it and for the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources. In response to its obligations under the CBD, New Zealand is developing a National Strategy on Biological Diversity, and participates in the work of the meetings of the parties to the Convention. We also contribute to the work of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice-an advisory body to the Parties, and participate in the negotiation of the Bio-safety Protocol to the CBD.

New Zealand is also committed to biodiversity and species conservation under several other MEAs. These include the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (the Ramsar Convention).

CITES is an attempt to reconcile competing international trade and species conservation issues. It is an international framework for regulating and restricting trade in certain wild animals and plants. Trade obligations for any particular species depend on evaluations of that species' ecological significance and its effect on other species, as well as the levels of exploitation and the effects of harvesting techniques. These obligations range from total trade bans to 'quota' restrictions and other measures (such as registration requirements, tagging systems, microchip implants in live animals, and so on).

New Zealand's obligations under CITES are implemented through the Trade in Endangered Species Act 1989. This Act prohibits trade in specimens violating the Convention, and imposes penalties for such violations.

The Ramsar Convention was initiated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1971 to stem the loss of wetlands worldwide. It promotes the conservation of wetlands, and their use, so that these areas continue to operate as functioning ecosystems.

New Zealand has five sites listed as wetlands of importance under the Convention:

  • Firth of Thames;
  • Whangamarino Wetland;
  • Kopuatai Peat Dome;
  • Farewell Spit; and
  • Waituna Wetlands Scenic Reserve.

New Zealand is also a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and takes a strong conservationist stance at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which meets regularly to assess the status of whale stocks and to regulate whale hunting. A worldwide ban on commercial whaling (but not customary and scientific whaling) was introduced in 1986, and a southern hemisphere whale sanctuary was declared in 1995.

New Zealand played a key role in negotiating the Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Drift Nets in the South Pacific in 1989. The Pacific's fisheries resources (and in particular, its limited southern albacore resource) had been placed under severe strain by extensive (and unsustainable) fishing by Korean and Japanese fishing industries in the region, often with little or no regard for the region's indigenous peoples. This convention banned the use of driftnets over 2.5 metres long in the South Pacific, and paved the way for a global moratorium on drift-net fishing on the high seas to be agreed by the United Nations in 1991.

Table 4.2: New Zealand's Multilateral Environmental Agreements (November 1996)
  year treaty entered into force date of NZ's signature (S) ratification(R) or accession (A) date NZ's S/R/A came into effect1 date treaty came into effect in NZ2
The Antarctic Treaty 1959 1961 R 1.11.60 1.11.60 23.6.61
Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources 1980 [CCAMLR] 1982 R 8.3.82 8.3.82 7.4.82
Atmosphere and Space
Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer 1985 1988 R 2.6.87 2.6.87 22.9.88
Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer 1987 [Montreal Protocol] 1989 R 21.7.88 21.7.88 1.1.89
London Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer 1990 1992 R 1.10.90 1.10.90 10.8.92
Copenhagen Amendment to the Montreal Protocol 1992 1994 R 4.6.93 4.6.93 14.6.94
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [FCCC] 1992 1994 R 16.9.93 16.9.93 21.3.94
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies 1967 1967 R 3.5.68 31.5.68 31.5.68
Protection of the Marine Environment and Resources
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] 1982 1994 R 19.7.96 18.8.96 18.8.96
International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in cases of Oil Pollution Casualties 1969 1975 A 26.3.75 26.3.75 6.5.75
International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (as amended) 1969 1975 A 27.4.76 26.7.76 26.7.76
International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil 1954 [OILPOL] 1958 R 1.6.71 1.9.71 1.9.71
Amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil 1962 1967 R 1.6.71 1.9.71 1.9.71
Amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil 1969 1978 R 27.4.76 27.4.76 20.1.78
Convention on the Continental Shelf 1958 1964 R 18.1.65 17.2.65 17.2.65
Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 [London Convention] 1975 R 30.4.75 30.4.75 30.8.75
Convention for the Prohibition of Fishing with Long Driftnets in the South Pacific 1989 [Wellington Convention] 1991 R 17.5.91 17.5.91 17.5.91
Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna 1993 1994 R 9.5.94 9.5.94 20.5.94
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1946 1948 R 2.8.493 15.6.76 15.6.76
Protocol to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling 1956 1959 R 21.6.574 15.6.76 15.6.76
Hazardous Substances
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal 1989 1992 R 20.12.94 20.3.95 20.3.95
Conservation of Natural Resources
Statutes of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources 1948 (IUCN Convention) 1948 R 6.5.74 6.5.74 6.5.74
International Plant Protection Convention 1951 1952 R16.9.52 16.9.52 16.9.52
Amendments to the International Plant Protection Convention 1979 1991 R 10.4.90 10.4.90 4.4.91
Plant Protection Agreement for the South East Asia and Pacific Region 1956 1956 A 17.12.75 17.12.75 17.12.75
Amendment to Article I(A) of the Plant Protection Agreement for the South East Asia and Pacific Region 1967 1969 A 17.12.75 17.12.75 17.12.75
Amendments to the Plant Protection Agreement for the South East Asia and Pacific Region 1979 1983 R 10.4.90 10.4.90 10.4.90
Amendments to the Plant Protection Agreement for the South East Asia and Pacific Region 1983 1990 R 10.4.90 10.4.90 23.5.90
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] 1973 1975 A 10.5.89 8.8.89 8.8.89
Amendment to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna (Art XI) 1979 1987 A 10.5.89 8.8.89 8.8.89
UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972 1975 R 22.11.84 22.2.85 22.2.85
Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat 1971 [Ramsar Convention] 1975 S 13.8.76 13.12.76 13.12.76
Protocol to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance...1982 1986 S 9.2.87 9.2.87 9.2.87
Amendments to Art.s 6 & 7 of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially... 1987 1994 R 7.7.93 7.7.93 1.5.94
Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region 1986 [SPREP] 1990 R 3.5.90 3.5.90 22.8.90
Protocol [to SPREP*] for the Prevention of Pollution of the South Pacific Region by Dumping 1986 1990 R 3.5.90 3.5.90 22.8.90
Protocol [to SPREP*] concerning Cooperation in Combating Pollution Emergencies in the South Pacific Region 1986 1990 R 3.5.90 3.5.90 22.8.90
Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 [CBD] 1993 R 16.9.93 16.9.93 29.12.93
International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (as amended) 1978 1978 R 3.11.80 8.11.81 8.11.81
International Tropical Timber Agreement 1983 1985 A 5.8.92 5.8.92 5.8.92
Arms Control and Nuclear Pollution
Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water 1963 1963 R 10.10.63 10.10.63 10.10.63
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 1970 R 10.9.69 10.9.69 5.3.70
Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction 1972 1975 R 13.12.72 13.12.72 26.3.75
Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident 1986 1986 A 11.3.87 11.4.87 11.4.87
Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency 1986 1987 A 11.3.87 11.4.87 11.4.87
South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and Protocols 1985 [SPNFZ] 1986 R 13.11.86 13.11.86 11.12.86
Convention on the Prohibition of Military or any other Hostile use of Environmental Modification Techniques 1976 1978 A 7.9.84 7.9.84 7.9.84
Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil Thereof 1971 1972 R 24.2.72 24.2.72 18.5.72

Source: Updated from Gurswamy et al, 1994 and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1994.

  1. This was usually the date of ratification. In many cases, the Treaty did not come into effect until a defined period after the ratification or signing. In some cases, signing had the effect of ratification.
  2. This was the later of either the date the Treaty came into force, or the date it came into effect in New Zealand.
  3. ratified 2.8.49, withdrew 3.10.68, then rejoined 15.6.76
  4. ratified 21.6.57, withdrew 30.6.69, then rejoined 15.6.76

* the Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region see Conservation of Natural Resources heading.

New Zealand is also a party to the Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna 1994, and has contributed to negotiations for the 1995 United Nations Convention on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

New Zealand's environmental interests in Antarctica have a long history. The Antarctic Treaty 1959 (ratified by New Zealand in 1961) was, to a large extent, borne of a mutual desire to preserve Antarctica for the benefit of countries with competing interests and claims over Antarctica's natural resources. The Treaty's only environmental provisions are those that prohibit nuclear explosions and the disposal of nuclear waste in Antarctic waters, and require consultative meeting recommendations for measures directed at (among other things) the preservation and conservation of living resources in Antarctica. The reality of environmental protection has not always corresponded with the claim of the Antarctic Treaty partners (New Zealand among them) that the protection of Antarctica's environment is their foremost concern.

The first real attempt to introduce environmental protection resulted in the adoption of the 1964 Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora (although these did not take effect until November 1982 as they were not ratified by some adopting states, including New Zealand). These measures denote the Antarctic as a 'Special Conservation Area'.

In 1982, parties adopted the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This Treaty (ratified by New Zealand in March 1982) is a model for other treaty regimes aimed at protecting marine and other living resources.

Parties to the Antarctic Treaty have been especially concerned to secure agreements over the regulation of mineral activities on the continent. Negotiations on the proposed Convention for the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) began in 1982. After increasing pressure from environmentalists objecting to any form of exploitation of Antarctica's minerals, the agreement was abandoned in 1988.

Following this collapse, a Special Consultative Meeting was called to discuss measures for preservation of Antarctica's resources in the interests of protecting the Antarctic Treaty system as a whole. The resulting agreement is the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection 1991 (the Madrid Protocol, signed and ratified by New Zealand but not yet in force). This Protocol is an historic agreement establishing a comprehensive framework for protecting the Antarctic environment and its ecosystems. It currently contains four annexes dealing with:

  • environmental impact assessment;
  • conservation of flora and fauna;
  • waste disposal; and
  • marine pollution.

New Zealand's Antarctic (Environmental Protection) Act came into effect in February 1995, and means that provisions in the Protocol can now be given effect in New Zealand law.

New Zealand is a world-leader in implementing measures for the protection of the ozone layer. It is party to both the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol. The Convention establishes principles for regulating substances that harm the ozone layer. The Protocol (as amended in London in 1990, and Copenhagen in 1992) sets targets for reducing the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances. New Zealand's obligations under the Montreal Protocol are implemented through the Ozone Layer Protection Act 1996 (passed in June 1996 to replace the original 1990 Act and all subsequent amendments to it). This Act contains more stringent measures than are required under the Protocol in respect of timetables and quantities for phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. It also contains a system for accreditation of workers dealing with ozone-depleting substances.

New Zealand's coastal and marine resources are at risk from a variety of factors, including land-based sources of marine pollution, ocean dumping and oil spills. A number of international conventions relate to the regulation of activities with potential for these environmental effects. These include the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL-not yet ratified by New Zealand) and the London Dumping Convention (which New Zealand ratified in April 1975).

MARPOL aims to eliminate pollution of the sea by oil and other toxic substances which might be discharged operationally or released accidentally as a result of collisions or stranding of ships. The London Dumping Convention regulates the dumping at sea of wastes and other matter.

Regulations recently prepared under the Resource Management Act to help control marine pollution from ships will allow New Zealand to:

  • better control polluting emissions from foreign ships;
  • join MARPOL's international system of controlling pollution from ships;
  • exercise more consistent and better integrated coastal management; and
  • begin preparation of a guideline document for shipping and boating operators on implications of the new regulations.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS ) is the most recent addition to the list of international environmental conventions to which New Zealand is a party. New Zealand ratified UNCLOS in July 1996 after the passage of enabling legislation. UNCLOS codifies customary international law concerning the sea and sets out states' varying obligations and rights in respect of the sea. It declares that the sea-bed, ocean floor and subsoil are beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, but that their exploitation shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole. The Convention outlines states' obligations and responsibilities in relation to different areas such as: territorial sea and the contiguous zone; straits used for international navigation; archipelagic states; the exclusive economic zone; the continental shelf; the high seas; islands; enclosed or semi-enclosed seas; rights of land-locked states; and the area (the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction).

A significant aspect of UNCLOS is its incorporation of the principle of 'common heritage of mankind'. This is similar to the 'intergenerational equity' and 'global responsibility' principles contained in the Rio Declaration.

New Zealand ratified the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal 1989 in March 1995. This Convention aims to both reduce the amount of waste being produced by signatories, and regulate the international traffic in hazardous wastes (especially to developing countries). The Convention emphasises the principle of 'generator responsibility' for disposal of wastes, and requires parties to minimise the environmental effects of the movement and disposal of hazardous waste. Ratification of the Convention required consideration of its implications under various aspects of New Zealand's domestic law, including the new Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.

New Zealand has been a staunch campaigner against the testing of nuclear weapons and the disposal of nuclear wastes in this part of the world. The South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (negotiated by members of the South Pacific Forum) is one result of this campaign. Its objective is to establish a nuclear free zone in the region and to keep the region free of environmental pollution by radioactive wastes. New Zealand is party to several other regional and international agreements concerning the use of radioactive materials and weapons.

Box 4.4: The 'Earth Summit' and Agenda 21

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, also known as the 'Earth Summit' ) was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. The Summit brought together representatives of 180 countries to discuss the many environmental and developmental problems facing the world. Discussions were guided by the principle of sustainable development, defined as: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. The aim of sustainable development is nothing less than to ensure the well-being of all people and of nature. It is a broad concept that encompasses integration of economic objectives, such as efficiency and prosperity; social objectives, such as equity and social justice; and environmental objectives, such as conservation, protection, and sustainable management of the environment. The enormous challenge in meeting this objective is the cold, hard fact that most modern methods of improving human well-being are destructive of nature.

The 'Earth Summit' produced five key documents on sustainable development issues: two legally binding conventions-the Biodiversity Convention and the Framework Convention on Climate Change; and three non-binding, but morally suasive, agreements-the Forest Principles, the Rio Declaration, and Agenda 21 (Ministry for the Environment, 1993). The Forest Principles address the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development identifies 27 guiding principles on sustainable development, including:

  • intergenerational equity-that there should be equity between the rights and needs of the current generation and generations to come;
  • the precautionary approach-that lack of full scientific certainty should not be a reason for delaying action to prevent damage to the environment;
  • polluter pays-that polluters should bear the cost of pollution;
  • fairly sharing responsibilities-that all nations share responsibility for protecting the global environment, but countries that pollute more should do more for environmental protection than countries that pollute less.

Agenda 21 is a 40-chapter plan for use by governments, local authorities and individuals to implement the principle of sustainable development. Some of its main themes include:

  • reforming policies-for bringing together environmental and economic issues. It calls for environmental considerations to be built into policy-making from the start rather than being added as an afterthought;
  • controlling wasteful consumption and production-Agenda 21 pinpoints the wasteful consumption and production associated with industrialisation and wealth acquisition as the most serious current cause of global degradation of the environment;
  • improving technologies-promoting greater use of environmentally sound technologies that use resources more efficiently and generate minimal levels of waste;
  • integrating trade and environment-to make environment and trade mutually supportive. This recognises that, while unjustifiable environmental controls can impede free trade, trade based on unsustainable production or unsustainable resource use can harm the environment.

Governments can implement aspects of the Agenda in many different ways-through legislation, through consultation processes they use to develop policy, by ratifying multilateral agreements, by designing policies which influence the effects of other countries' policies, and so on. The economic, social and environmental elements of sustainable development are reflected in Government strategy documents such as Path to 2010 and the Environment 2010 Strategy. 'Sustainable management' of the environment is one strand of sustainable development and the foundation for most of New Zealand's environmental legislation (including the Resource Management Act, the Fisheries Act, the Forests Amendment Act, and the Biosecurity Act).

The extent to which Agenda 21 is being turned into practical actions varies from nation to nation and community to community. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meets annually to consider progress made by governments. Non-government organisations play an important role in these evaluations, contributing to the debate and helping to monitor the activities of countries and multilateral agencies in implementing sustainable development. In New Zealand, the UNCED Implementation Officials Group oversees implementation of Agenda 21. This Group comprises government representatives from agencies with portfolios of high relevance to Agenda 21 issues. It offers advice for local authorities to implement 'local Agenda 215', as a framework for both their annual, and longer-term strategic plans.

In 1994, the Local Government Association and Ministry for the Environment published a guide for local authorities on implementing Agenda 21 entitled Taking up the Challenge of Agenda 21 (Ministry for the Environment, 1994a). This offers ideas to help local authorities integrate planning processes for wideranging community and environmental interests such as business development and employment; unique qualities and resources; managing ecosystems, waste, stormwater and transport systems; housing; recreational pursuits; tourism; health services, etc. The Guide provides case studies of local Agenda 21s, and helps identify a number of useful ingredients for new agendas.

Several local authorities have already designed local Agenda 21s; others implement Agenda 21 principles on a less formal basis. Many of the functions and activities that local authorities already carry out (for instance, under legislation such as the Resource Management Act and Local Government Act) contribute to achieving the objectives of Agenda 21. However, authorities can use Agenda 21 as both a checklist and a catalyst for implementing actions towards sustainable development. Whether designed by international agencies, the Government, or local authorities, the most important ingredient of any plan to implement Agenda 21 and its wider principle of sustainable development is commitment.

From principle to performance

The preceding chapters have looked at the context for our environmental management and the arrangements for that management. As our core legislation, the Resource Management Act, recognises in its purpose, use of resources by the community to provide for their economic and social welfare is legitimate, we must ensure, however, that the way and the rate at which we use those resources does not cumulatively become unsustainable for the environment, on which all this activity depends.

We need to take the next step, and ask how New Zealand's arrangements for environmental management are performing. These arrangements are only valuable if they enhance our environment both at home and on the global scale.

So far the report card is blank. Environmental information is a prerequisite for identifying areas where we 'must try harder', and areas where we can afford to maintain (or even slow) our efforts. The next chapters take a look at some of our 'environmental realities'. Only by analysing the real state of our environment, and determining trends in its quality over time, can we enter into a meaningful dialogue for ways to improve our world.