What is the Stockholm Declaration?

The 1972 Stockholm Declaration1 is a key instrument of modern international environmental law. It provided a negotiated framework within which sovereign states could develop a coordinated and cooperative approach towards international environmental law. It is very much a product of its time: a non-binding set of principles that have threaded their way through various treaties over the last 40 years.

Between 1972 and the present there have been numerous developments that have built upon the foundation created by the Stockholm Declaration, in particular the 1992 Rio Declaration2. This provides an indication of the areas that remain vitally important to the international community, and also which new priorities have been introduced. Scattered across the past forty years are a number of instruments that have attempted to fulfil the 26 principles of the Stockholm Declaration in some way.

As expected from an early document that merely declares a set of non-binding principles, Günther Handl writes that

the Stockholm Declaration espouses mostly broad environmental policy goals and objectives rather than detailed normative positions.3

This article considers some of the key principles of the Stockholm Declaration.

The preamble

The preamble of the Stockholm Declaration reveals an approach to international environmental law that is driven by a need to preserve or conserve the environment for the benefit of human beings. Paragraph 3 of the preamble says:

We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth … harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.

Paragraph 7 acknowledges that environmental protection is effectively the responsibility of citizens, communities, enterprises, institutions, organisations, and local and national governments. This is a surprisingly inclusive statement: from 1972 onward, the development of international environmental law places the responsibility for conservation firmly on everyone. This proclamation is further reflected in Principle 17.

Principles 1 & 15

Principle 1 explicitly calls for the elimination of ‘policies promoting or perpetuating apartheid, racial segregation, discrimination, colonial and other forms of oppression and foreign domination’, while Principle 15 addresses the issue similarly stating that ‘projects which are designed for colonialist and racist domination must be abandoned.’

These are unusual for inclusion in a document such as this. Other instruments such as the 1965 Racial Discrimination Convention4 and the ‘twin’ human rights covenants of 19665 had already dealt much more comprehensively with these issues. The inclusion of these statements is an acknowledgement that environmental issues go beyond the physical aspects. Whether such statements would be included if the Stockholm Declaration was made today has no clear answer, but perhaps not given that ‘the idea of a generic human right to an adequate or healthy environment … has failed to garner general international support.’6

Principle 15 also contains the stipulation that ‘Planning must be applied to human settlements and urbanization with a view to avoiding adverse effects on the environment and obtaining maximum social, economic and environmental benefits for all.’ This is a reference to sustainable development and preventative action (see below).

Principles 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 13 & 14

Principles 2, 3, 5 & 7 predominantly deal with the ability for humans to derive sustenance from their environment, both in the present and future. The word ‘benefit’ in Principle 2 demonstrates a view that the environment must be conserved for the well-being and continuation of the human species.

This notion is also displayed in Principle 5: ‘non-renewable resources … must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion and to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.’

Principle 4, on the other hand, is the only principle that seems to address the responsibility of humans to ‘safeguard and wisely manage the heritage of wildlife and its habit’ and give importance to nature conservation in planning for economic development. ‘Man is both creature and moulder of his environment’ is the first proclamation of the Stockholm Declaration, yet it is only Principle 4 that acknowledges humans are part of the environment, not merely its beneficiaries.

Handl acknowledges that the Stockholm Declaration

evince[s] a strongly human-centric approach. … Today, as our understanding of other life forms improves and scientists call for recognizing certain species as deserving some of the same rights as humans, the … anthropocentric focus looks somewhat dated.’7

This is one area in which the focus of international environmental law has shifted slightly over the years, however.

Sustainable development

The Stockholm Declaration does not explicitly call for sustainable development, something which has gradually become part of international environmental law since 1972. Nevertheless, and perhaps more usefully, the Stockholm Declaration states in Principle 3 that ‘The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved.’

In Principle 5 it states that ‘The non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion’. Principles 13 & 14 take a similar approach, calling for ‘an integrated and coordinate approach’ to development in order to ‘achieve a more rational management of resources’ and declaring ‘rational planning’ as constituting an ‘essential tool for reconciling’ conflict between development and environmental protection. This avoids to some extent the lack of a ‘generally accepted definition’ of sustainable development described by Sands and Peel.8

The clarity of Principles 3 & 5 demonstrates the intention that the use of natural resources must be in such a way as to avoid their loss. If the declaration were being negotiated today, it might provide an opportunity to formulate a commonly-agreed defintion of sustainable development, perhaps borrowing the Legal Experts Group of the World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition of ‘conservation’ as the

management of human use of a natural resource or the environment in such a manner that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations. It embraces preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilisation, restoration and enhancement of a natural resource of the environment.9

Principle 21

‘Principle 21 remains the cornerstone of international environmental law’.10 It has not been significantly deviated from in the past 40 years, although it was restated with minor amendment in Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration.

Principle 21 reflects the customary international law position that

  • states have the right to exploit their own natural resources, and
  • states have a responsibility to ensure activities within their jurisdiction do not harm the environment of other states.

This is an interesting balance of competing interests. The first — the right of exploitation — had been previously formulated in resolutions by the UN General Assembly during 1952–1960,11 and will likely to remain at the core even if it seems a hindrance to environmental protection by promoting the free exploitation of natural resources.

Preventative action

The right to exploit resources may seem bare and do little to ward off environmental damage isolated to one jurisdiction. Despite this, it appears that the exercise of the right of exploitation is increasingly restrained by the customary principle contained in UN General Assembly Resolution 1803: that the exercise of this sovereignty must be for the development of the well-being of those within the relevant jurisdiction.12

It is interesting that this stipulation was not included in the Stockholm Declaration itself, though Principles 6, 7, 15, 18 & 24 allude to a general responsibility to take preventative steps to avoid environmental degradation at home and abroad. As Sands and Peel acknowledge:

Taken together, th[e] extensive body of international commitments provides compelling evidence of … the wide support for the principle of preventative action.13

This is further supported by the International Court of Justice’s 1997 acknowledgement

that, in the field of environmental protection, vigilance and prevention are required on account of the often irreversible character of damage to the environment.14

Principle 21 as customary international law

It is clear that Principle 21 is an established rule of customary international law, as acknowledged by the International Court of Justice’s 1996 Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons15 and its ruling in the 2010 Pulp Mills case.16 Principle 21 is included in Article 3 of the United Nations 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity,17 demonstrating its pervasiveness and effectively universal support.

Principle 21 has stood the test of time, and it is unlikely given the events prior to and following 1972 that it will change substantially (excepting the addition of a reference to developmental polices, as in Principle 2 of the Rio Declaration).

The second aspect of Principle 21 — the responsibility not to cause environmental damage — has long been recognised in international law,18 but is not without certain problems. Sands and Peel write that ‘consistent state practice is not readily discernible’ in regard to the nature and extent of environmental damage caused.19

Nevertheless, Principle 21 has been wholly incorporated into several treaties, demonstrating strong international support.20 It is in keeping with the nature of a declaration of principles such as this that detail is omitted and instead any further development occurs under carefully negotiated binding agreements.

Extra-territorial application of domestic laws

One area in which Principle 21 might have been expanded in a contemporary context is in regard to the application of national laws beyond jurisdiction. Prior to the World Trade Organisation’s Shrimp/Turtle case in 199921 it seemed that the extra-territorial application of domestic laws was not permitted.22

A ‘more modern conception of an ecologically interdependent world’ is proving a challenge to the older positions.23 As such, there is a distinct lack of generally accepted standards in this area and the question of extra-territorial application of domestic laws remains open.24

This issue was partially addressed by Principle 12 of the Rio Declaration which states:

Unilateral actions to deal with environmental challenges outside the jurisdiction of the importing country should be avoided. Environmental measures addressing transboundary or global environmental problems should, as far as possible, be based on an international consensus.

As Sands and Peel point out:

The challenge for the international community in coming years will be to determine the circumstances in which … a state will be permitted … to adopt unilateral environmental measures and apply them extra-territorially.25

Principle 22

Principle 22 has a number of interesting features. It deals with compensation of victims of pollution in one state caused by the activities in another state: that is, extra-jurisdictional damage. It it not phrased in any particular form, however: it is not, for example, a statement of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Instead, Principle 22 states that parties are committed to developing the international law in this area. The polluter pays principle appears to be one such development, and has received attention in several international instruments, including the Rio Declaration, but has failed to garner universal support.26

Despite this, many treaties have acknowledged and incorporated it,27 indicating that Principle 22 has fulfilled its objective by spurring international development in this area of law.

Principles 24 & 25

Principles 24 & 25 are directed towards cooperation. Principle 24 stipulates that all countries have an equal responsibility towards environmental protection and improvement, and acknowledges the essential nature of cooperation through multilateral or bilateral arrangements. In a similar vein as Principle 21, Principle 24 acknowledges that ‘due account’ must be taken of the sovereignty and interests of all states.

Principle 25 extends this notion of cooperation to the involvement of international organisations, which countries must ensure ‘play a coordinate, efficient and dynamic role for the protection and improvement of the environment.’

Principle 27 of the Rio Declaration states quite similarly, albeit in more words:

States and people shall cooperate in good faith and in a spirit of partnership in the fulfilment of the principles embodied in this Declaration and in the further development of international law in the field of sustainable development.

The strength of the obligation to cooperate has been attested to in ‘virtually all international environmental agreements’28 and is reflected in significant decisions by international courts and tribunals29 including the 2001 MOX Plant Case where the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea said:

the duty to cooperate is a fundamental principle in the prevention of the pollution of the … environment.30

‘Neglected’ principles

There are a number of principles that do not appear in the Stockholm Declaration, but which were included 20 years later in the Rio Declaration. The two most significant ones are Principle 7, relating to common but differentiated responsibilities, and Principle 15, concerning the precautionary approach.

The second and third sentences of Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration state:

In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradations, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.

This has been restated with adjustment to say ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ in Article 3 of the 1992 Climate Change Convention. The acknowledgement is clear: all countries have an obligation towards sustainable development, however developed countries place greater demands on the environmental, and they are in a better position technologically and financially to assist developing countries in growing sustainably.31

Principle 15 contains the precautionary approach — in the face of scientific uncertainty it is best to err on the side of caution and take precautionary measures. Principle 15 provides that the precautionary approach is to be applied by sovereign states ‘according to their capabilities’, and does not require ‘full scientific certainty’ for a state to take action.

Principle 15 is, however, controversial,32 despite growing acceptance of the precautionary approach in international instruments (though not uniformly applied to all aspects of the environment).33 Indeed, explicit reference is made to the ‘precautionary approach contained in Principle 15’ in Article 1 of the 2000 Biosafety Protocol.34.

Opposition to the precautionary approach is evident in the wording of the 1992 Climate Change Convention, the text limiting its application to ‘serious or irreversible damage’ and being connected with ‘cost effective’ measures.35 Although the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s Seabed Disputes Chamber has in effect reached the conclusion that Principle 15 forms part of customary international law36 and Principle 15 has gained favour in Europe,37 the International Court of Justice has thus far declined to give it customary international law status.

Concluding remarks

The 1972 Stockholm Declaration is very clearly a product of its time. It launched the start of the modern approach to international environmental law by providing a flexible framework of fundamental principles to guide development in this area for more than 40 years.

Some of its aspects are unusual and surprising when viewed from a contemporary perspective, yet it remains a robust framework, a fact demonstrated by the number of international agreements it has launched, and the inability of future instruments to improve upon its principles to any great extent.

Certainly aspects of the 1992 Rio Declaration have improved upon the Stockholm Declaration, but this is an evolutionary process. Some outstanding questions of international environmental law remain unresolved, but the Stockholm Declaration continues to be embraced as the cornerstone document of a continually growing body of law.




  1. Declaration at United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, UN Doc A/CONF 48/14/Rev 1 (1973).

  2. United Nations Declaration on Environment and Development, UN DOC A/CONF 151/5/Rev 1 (1992).

  3. Günther Handl, ‘Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Declaration), 1972 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992’ (Introductory Note, United Nations Audiovisual Library of International Law, 2012) 1 <http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/dunche/dunche_e.pdf>.

  4. International Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, opened for signature 21 December 1965, 660 UNTS 195 (entered into force 4 January 1969).

  5. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, opened for signature 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976); International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, opened for signature 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 (entered into force 23 March 1976).

  6. Handl, above n 3, 4.

  7. Ibid 3.

  8. Philippe Sands and Jacqueline Peel, Principles of International Environmental Law (Cambridge University Press 3rd ed, 2012) 212.

  9. 1986 WCED Legal Principles [i], quoted ibid 212.

  10. Sands and Peel, above n 6, 191.

  11. Integrated economic development and commercial agreements, GA Res 523, UNGAOR, 6th sess, 360th plen mtg (12 January 1952); Right to exploit freely natural wealth and resources, GA Res 626, UNGAOR, 7th sess, 411th plen mtg (21 December 1952); Recommendations concerning international respect for the right of peoples and nations to self-determination, GA Res 837, UNGAOR, 9th sess, 412th plen mtg (14 December 1954); Concerted action for economic development of economically less developed countries, GA Res 1515, UNGAOR, 15th sess, 948th plen mtg (15 December 1960).

  12. Permanent sovereignty over natural resources, GA Res 1803, UNGAOR, 17th sess, 1194th plen mtg (14 December 1962); Texaco Overseas Petroleum Co v Libya (1977) 53 ILR 389 [87]; Kuwait v American Independent Oil Co (1982) 21 ILM 976.

  13. Sands and Peel, above n 6, 203.

  14. Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project (Hungary v Slovakia) (Judgement) [1997] ICJ Rep 7, 78.

  15. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion) [1996] ICJ Rep 226.

  16. Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay (Argentina v Uruguay) (Judgment)_ [2010] ICJ Rep 14.

  17. Convention on Biological Diversity, opened for signature 5 June 1992, 1760 UNTS 79 (entered into force 29 December 1993) art 3.

  18. See eg Trail Smelter Arbitration (United States v Canada) (1941) 3 RIAA 1907.

  19. Sands and Peel, above n 6, 198.

  20. See eg Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, opened for signature 29 December 1972, 1046 UNTS 138 (entered into force 30 August 1977) preamble; Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, opened for signature 13 November 1979, 1302 UNTS 217 (entered into force 16 March 1983) preamble; Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, opened for signature 22 March 1985, 1513 UNTS 293 (entered into force 22 September 1988).

  21. Appellate Body Report, United States — Import Prohibition of Certain Shrimp and Shrimp Products WTO Doc WT/DS58/AB/R (12 October 1998) [133].

  22. See eg Bering Sea Fur Seals Fisheries (Great Britain v United States) (1893) Moore’s International Arbitration 755; GATT Panel Report, United States — Measures on Yellow-Fin Tuna Imports, GATT Doc DS21/R (3 September 1991).

  23. Sands and Peel, above n 6, 193.

  24. Ibid 193–194.

  25. Ibid 195.

  26. Ibid 228–223.

  27. See eg Association of South East Asian Nations Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, opened for signature 9 July 1985, 15 EPL 64 (entered into force 16 November 1997) art 10; Convention on the Protection of the Alps, opened for signature 7 November 1991, 1917 UNTS 135 (entered into force 6 March 1995) art 2; Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, opened for signature 17 March 1992, 1936 UNTS 269 (entered into force 6 October 1996) art 5; Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, opened for signature 22 September 1992, 2354 UNTS 67 (entered into force 25 March 1998) art 2; Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea, opened for signature 9 April 1992, 2099 UNTS 195 (entered into force 17 January 2000) art 3; Energy Charter Treaty, opened for signature 17 December 1994, 2080 UNTS 95 (entered into force 16 April 1998) art 19.

  28. Philippe Sands and Jacqueline Peel, above n 6, 204; Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in their Natural State, signed 8 November 1933, 172 LNTS 241 (entered into force 14 January 1936) art 12(2); Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, opened for signature 12 October 1940, 161 UNTS 193 (entered into force 1 May 1942) art VI; Convention on the Protection of the Alps, opened for signature 7 November 1991, 1917 UNTS 135 (entered into force 6 March 1995) art 2(1); United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, opened for signature 10 December 1982, 1833 UNTS 3 (entered into force 16 November 1944) arts 123, 197; Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, opened for signature 22 March 1985, 1513 UNTS 293 (entered into force 22 September 1988) art 2(2); Convention on Biological Diversity, opened for signature 5 June 1992, 1760 UNTS 79 (entered into force 29 December 1993) art 5.

  29. See eg Lac Lanoux Arbitration (France v Spain) (1957) 12 RIAA 281; Land Reclamation by Singapore in and around the Straits of Johor (Malaysia v Singapore) (Provisional Measures) (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Case No 12, 10 September 2003).

  30. MOX Plant Case (Ireland v United Kingdom (Provisional Measures) (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Case No 10, 3 December 2001) [82].

  31. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, opened for signature 9 May 1992, 1771 UNTS 107 (entered into force 24 March 1994) art 3.

  32. See generally Sands and Peel, above n 6, 217–228.

  33. See eg Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa, opened for signature 30 January 1991, 2101 UNTS 177 (entered into force 22 April 1998) art 4; Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, opened for signature 17 March 1992, 1936 UNTS 269 (entered into force 6 October 1996) art 2.

  34. Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, opened for signature 15 May 2000, 2226 UNTS 208 (entered into force 11 September 2003) art 1.

  35. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, opened for signature 9 May 1992, 1771 UNTS 107 (entered into force 24 March 1994) art 3.

  36. Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities with Respect to Activities in the Area (Advisory Opinion) (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Case No 17, 1 February 2011) [127].

  37. Tâtar v Romania (European Court of Human Rights, Application No 67021/01, 27 January 2009) [120].