a problem with multilateral environmental agreements

i read a very interesting paper this morning on the weaknesses of multilateral environmental agreements like CITES, the montreal protocol (think ozone) and the convention on biological diversity. as david humphreys, the author of forest politics and logjam, points out in a paper called public goods, neoliberalism and the crisis of deforestation (pdf), multilateral agreements view the commons as public goods. the trade laws see them as private goods. this, he says, reflects…

…a broader and more fundamental tension in global governance, namely between different international institutions operating largely in isolation from each other while promoting different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, values and objectives. Examples include the conflict between the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements, and between international institutions promoting different notions of intellectual property rights.


….where such conflicts occur, those institutions promoting neoliberal objectives will prevail.

that is mainly because trade law is stronger than environmental law (google here for something called disciplinary neoliberalism). in part because it is a great deal more cohesive than the pastiche of laws that comprise, say, the international forest regime. and in part because…

…where there is an inconsistency between two pieces of international law the most recent instrument, which has post-dated the older instrument, usually prevails. the WTO agreements post-date most multilateral environmental agreements, including the CBD.

the consequences are predictable. since…

…International trade law prohibits discrimination between “like products” on the basis of the process and production methods used in their manufacture, which means that states cannot discriminate between timber imports from sustainably-managed forests and those from unsustainable sources, such as clearfelled forests. Under international trade law the principle of equal market access for “like products” takes precedence over all other considerations, including environmental degradation. This fits with the neoliberal logic of removing barriers to international trade but acts against sustainable forest management.

CITES is one of the few multilateral environmental agreements to allow restrictions to international trade on environmental grounds. Another is the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion, which aims to phase out the consumption and use of CFCs and other ozone depleting substances. However the compatibility of the trade restriction measures of CITES and the Montreal Protocol with the WTO agreements, which promote international trade liberalisation through the removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers, is unclear. Neither the WTO nor, before its creation in 1995, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), have challenged the trade restrictions of a multilateral environmental agreement. Were a challenge to be made trade restrictions on environmental grounds could be ruled in breach of international trade law.

The CBD contains no trade restriction measures, although some issues have a trade related aspect, such as access and benefit sharing. The CBD stipulates that the convention “shall not affect the rights and obligations of any Contracting Party deriving from any existing international agreement, except where the exercise of those rights and obligations would cause a serious damage or threat to biological diversity” (article 22.1). This implies that the CBD could implement a trade restriction measure if not to do so would seriously damage or threaten biodiversity. But such a measure could be ruled WTO illegal. Where there is an inconsistency between two pieces of international law the most recent instrument, which has post-dated the older instrument, usually prevails. The WTO agreements post-date most multilateral environmental agreements, including the CBD.

need to understand all this in much more detail.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at despitethestate@protonmail.com.


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.” Scroll.in

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf.Moneycontrol.com

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,” Booksfirst.in.

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society