Does Regional Cooperation Lead to Sustainable Development? By Jonathan Verschuuren

March 26, 2015

Author Articles

Nasa_blue_marbleRegional organizations like the European Union and African Union claim that sustainable development is an important part of their remit.  Professor Jonathan Verschuuren considers how successful they are in putting this idea into practice.

Scientists increasingly find that our planet is one integrated system. Earth System Science is emerging as a new discipline that seeks to understand the physical, chemical, biological and human interactions that determine the past and the future of our planet. Given the fact that humans increasingly interfere with Earth at systems level (hence the new epoch of the Anthropocene), societal dimensions are increasingly integrated in Earth System Science as well.

Together, the four big regional organisations European Union (EU), African Union (AU), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Organisation of American States (OAS) span much of the globe. Potentially, therefore, these organisations together have a big impact on the future of Earth. Promoting sustainable development is an important goal for all of these organisations. The question arises whether the various activities of these organisations are successful, in the sense that their policies and measures prevent environmental pollution, promote sustainable water management, combat climate change and contribute to the protection of human rights, especially the right to live in a healthy environment.

Obviously, this is a question that is hard to answer for all the organisations together, as there are huge differences between the four organisations, especially with regard to the level of harmonization. Transferring authority and legal power to institutions of the regional organisation in one region is completely accepted (EU) and in the other completely unnegotiable (AU).

But should I have to answer the question at gunpoint I would say: no.

Let’s have a closer look. Although sustainable development is an abstract and vague notion, it also creates opportunities for the pooling of resources via regional cooperation. By setting an overarching, albeit vague, global goal, the notion of sustainable development has opened up room for cooperation between Member States of regional organisations on a wide range of issues. This room for collaboration is occupied in the various regional organisations in quite different ways, ranging from cautious and even somewhat reluctant forms of collaboration (such as ASEAN), to the powerful and substantial joint processes of the EU. The first forms of collaboration usually lead to non-legally binding instruments. It is clear that the latter instruments indeed have value in that they may facilitate further progressive developments. It is not unthinkable that the ‘soft law’ instruments may ultimately culminate in the establishment of standards that are enforceable upon individual states. When comparing the four regional organisations, we should keep in mind that three organisations predominantly comprise ‘developing’ states, and only one has ‘developed states’ among its members. In general, it is evident that the institutionalisation of regional cooperation is more advanced in relation to the EU. Regional cooperation in the latter instance has resulted in a more comprehensive corpus of environmental law that pursues sustainable development.

A key concern is the lack of implementation of regional law, in particular by regional organisations of developing states. This lack of implementation is linked with the absence of political commitment and the reluctance to relinquish sovereignty to a regional organisation. Hence, scholars frequently bemoan the lack of progress in relation to regional integration in organisations, such as ASEAN and the AU. It is, however, important to take cognisance of the historical, cultural and socio-economic differences that exist between regions in comparing the different regional organisations. Developing states face several obstacles in term of deeper regional integration. The existence of these obstacles and the need for sustainable development, however, induces the urgent need for regional cooperation amongst Member States. States are frequently unable to respond to the challenges of globalisation and revert to the pooling of resources in order to escape marginalisation. This is evident in relation to the array of environmental challenges, such as climate change, that states face. The acknowledgement of the vulnerability of states in this regard may therefore serve as an important catalyst for regional cooperation on environmental matters pursuant to sustainable development. This may result in a progressive realisation of deeper regional integration. Reluctant regional cooperation may therefore gradually make way for more political commitment and intensified regional cooperation. Regional cooperation pursuant to integration is recognised as pivotal for the pursuit of the laudable goal of sustainable development and therefore constitutes an important common denominator.

81951774The existence of a Court that has the power to oversee compliance of Member States with regional law constitutes an important impetus to meaningful regional cooperation in the pursuit of sustainable development. Without such a ‘higher power’, much, if not all, remains at the discretion of politically motivated organs of single states. In this sense, it is reassuring that in the regions without firm and legally binding collaborations, at least human rights courts are actively involved in guaranteeing a minimum level of environmental protection. This certainly is the case in the Americas and, to a lesser extent, also in Africa, where the African Commission and the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights have been responsible for progressive decisions in relation to the rights in the Banjul Charter. It is good to see that in each of the regions mentioned, there is at least progress on regional cooperation on environmental matters pursuant to sustainable development.

Planet Earth is one integrated system. All of its natural processes are designed, in one way or another, to sustain that system. Society still is a long way from approaching Earth as a system. Man carved up Earth in a large number of individual nations, each with its own ambitions and policies. Regional cooperation is a first step towards aligning these ambitions and policies with the aim to protect the planet. Unfortunately, in most regions a second step is only set at a very slow pace. We are a long way away from designing and implementing policies that address the needs of our Earth as a whole, rather than the individual issues of individual countries.

817287Jonathan Verschuuren is Professor of international and European environmental law, Tilburg University, Netherlands.  He is co-editor of Regional Environmental Law: Transregional Comparative Lessons in Pursuit of Sustainable Development, published by Edward Elgar in April.

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