The Dimensions Of The Sustainable Development And The International Law
The Dimensions Of The Sustainable Development And The International Law

The Dimensions Of The Sustainable Development And The International Law

It is revealed with the awareness emerging with globalization that the development of societies is needed to be permanent for further generations.
It is revealed with the awareness emerging with globalization that the development of societies is needed to be permanent for further generations.

It is revealed with the awareness emerging with globalization that the development of societies is needed to be permanent for further generations.

Article Download “PDF”

Research by Büşra Yengeç Ersin

The environmental pollution brought out by the economic competition, the reduction of natural resources and economic dead-ends shows that the countries have neglected the other factors while they have progressed in terms of development. All point out that the development alone is not enough and it should be evolved for people to live a quality life in the future. In this study, the definition of sustainable development will be emphasized for a more quality life and a clean and fair world for the next generations, and the actions, taken for sustainable development, and how is the international law is related will be analyzed.


Economic developments emerging with the Industrial Revolution stimulated the competition between countries and formed a world order focusing on economic power. Therefore, these led to a lack of control in terms of resource consumption. The lack of control in consumption also made way for irreversible damages to the environment. It is seen in our century that these damages have been realized and several precautions are about to be taken. This awareness brings the idea of sustainability in the development of countries. Rather than being the definition of a term that enhances the country and leads it to its goals, development has become a concern between countries in terms of sustainability.

It can be seen in the literature that the term “sustainable development” is emerged with the Sustainable Development Summits organized by the United Nations. Especially, the efforts of the United Nations on uniting countries to set goals are crucial. The necessity of simultaneous actions of economic, environmental and social development for its sustainability is emphasized with the frequent summits, and thus, several mutual principles are determined. The main principles are the limitation of the consumption of nonrenewable natural resources, poverty reduction, technological integrations and supporting the developing countries.

History of the Sustainable Development

When the entering of the term “Sustainable Development” into the literature is analyzed, the search should begin from the 1960s. In this period, a lot of publications on environmental pollution were started to be written. The one that attracted the most attention is the report titled “The Limits to Growth”. This report was prepared by Rome Club, formed by scientists, in 1972. It is important in terms of affiliating the development with the economic growth. The report mainly deals with population growth, accelerating industrialisation, malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment. The main idea is that the development will come to an end if the unstable increase in population, industrialization, environmental pollution continues; nonetheless, it is possible to change this course and to create a stabilised sustainable development.

The very first time that a discussion on enhancing and protecting the environment took place was at the UN Conference held in Stockholm in 1972. At the conference, it was emphasized that social and economic development have been connected to the environment, and principles for this purpose were mentioned to be produced. However, it can be seen that these principles could not be practised and the effects of the environmental issues on the economy have increased.

With the Mediterranean Action Plan, prepared within the scope of the United Nations Environment Programme in 1974 and currently performed by the Mediterranean countries, the objectives on the sustainability of the resource management have been determined:

  • The protection and reinforcement of the resources in the Mediterranean,
  • Vanishing social differences,
  • Ensuring the sustainability of the natural resources,
  • Development of governance on both national and international levels,
  • Preventing and reducing the pollution,
  • Economic and social development.

The first time that the “Sustainable Development” term was officially used in the report known as “Our Common Future” and titled as “Brundtland Report”, prepared by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. Sustainable development has been defined in the report that ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It has been argued in the report that sustainable development can only be applied if economic, environmental and social development are performed simultaneously and equally.

The objectives of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report are summarised as follows:

  • Achieving more quality growth by boosting the growth,
  • Being able to meet the basic needs as food, drink and health,
  • Stabilising the increase in the population,
  • Connecting environment and economy for deciding,
  • Managing technological developments.

The sustainable development term could not be included in the countries’ active policies until the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development. Analysing “Agenda 21”, accepted in the conference, it can be seen that it has been formed of four parts:

  • Preservation of resources,
  • Social and economic perspective,
  • Strong places of effective actors,
  • Implementation body.

Following these, World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995, and Habitat II were organized. In these conferences, the effort of creating a common language on people-oriented sustainable development, which had been suggested before, suggested again and the process of international awareness and cooperation has been supported. Later in 1997, Kyoto Protocol was adopted within the scope of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention imposed an obligation for decreasing greenhouse gas emission and determined higher objectives. In 2000, it is possible to notice the Millennium Summit, held on 6-8 April, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. With this document, the leaders who attended the summit explained their goals by the year 2015 as safety and disarmament, ensuring peace, eradicating extreme poverty, protection of the environment, human rights and democracy, aid to the African continent and empowerment of the United Nations.

While the effort to create a perception of Sustainable Development continued, two texts, “Plan of Implementation” and “Political Declaration”, were written in the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The topics of these two texts can be summarized as:

  • Preservation of natural resources in economic and social development,
  • Fighting poverty,
  • Health and sustainable development relationship,
  • Sustainable development in Africa,
  • Globalization and sustainable development,
  • Sustainable development of the developing countries.

The United Nations World Summit took place in 2005. The importance of the summit is the outcome document published afterwards. This document draws attention to ten basic principles: fight against terrorism, development, ensuring and protection of peace, the responsibility of protection, democracy, human rights and rule of law, environment, governance reports, health, humanitarian aids and empowerment of the United Nations.

Thereafter, 2006 III. Word Urban Forum and 2008 IV. World Urban Forum was held. The Millennium Development Summit was held in the same year and the development goals, that had been determined in the very same summit, were updated. Accordingly, the importance of cooperation was emphasized in terms of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, combating infectious diseases, universal primary education, reducing child mortality, gender equality, improving maternal health, environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, was held in 2012. With the final document of the conference titled “The Future We Want”, the “people” term has been placed in the center of sustainable development and the necessity that people act together on this has been emphasized. It has been pointed out in the document that one in five people were on the breadline and the diseases caused by malnutrition and their spread were concerned. The necessity of sustainable development to prevent poverty, which was thought to increase with the growth in the world population, estimated to outnumber nine billion by 2050, has been put forward. The transition to the green economy for sustainable development and preventing poverty has been emphasized, and therefore, the principles below have been presented within the context of the green economy:

  • Compliance with international law,
  • The evaluation of the independence of nations on their own resources in terms of their own goals and sustainable development,
  • Supporting policies with the participation of all related society and organization,
  • Creating opportunities for sustainable economic development,
  • Meeting the needs of developing countries with respect to the degree of urgency,
  • Providing international cooperation by supporting developing countries technologically, economically and in other ways,
  • Eliminating discrimination and limitations on commerce,
  • Taking actions to protect the cultural heritage of minorities and ethnic elements, and respecting them,
  • Improving conditions for vulnerable groups as women, children, disabled and young,
  • The equality in women and men participation,
  • Supporting the activities in developing countries to eliminate poverty.

After determining the development goals, the United Nations have decided “Global Dialogue on Rule of Law and the Post-2015 Development Agenda” to become the main agenda item and the meetings continued within the scope of this. According to another report published by the United Nations in 2015, it has been stated that the biggest problem in the world is the challenge of accessing the toilet and clean drinking water. It has been also explained that considering the importance that it had emphasized, the Millennium Development goals did not succeed in mother and child health: and 300 thousand women were killed in 2013, and an improvement in child development due to malnutrition.

In the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit, some decisions have been taken with high participation, and accordingly, 17 goals by the year 2030 have been determined. The goals include the main elements that were determined in the previous summits such as poverty, social equality, preventing climate change. In 2015, Helen Clark, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, commented on the 2030 goals as:

“These goal points out a historic moment for our world to become more comprehensive and sustainable. If we work together, we will have the chance to protect nature while we also meet the demands of people on peace, welfare, better living conditions.”

As for the latest updates on sustainable development, an important meeting was held by the heads of states and governments in the UN body in New York on 24-25 September 2019. The process of achieving the 2030 goals and the actions to take to reach them was discussed. Another action plan for 10 for the 2030 goals was created by the leaders.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, nations with sustainable development goals have been trying to bring forward proposals especially on proposals and skip this period with minimum damage through consultations. The meetings which had to be cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic will be organized in the future. The earliest example of this is the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development that will take place on 6-15 July 2021. The main focus of the forum is expected to be sustainable and resisted recovery from Covid-19 which have been affecting sustainable development economically, socially and environmentally.

Dimensions of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is discussed under three dimensions as environmental, economic and social. The environmental dimension includes protecting the ecosystem, investing in projects based on renewable energy resources rather than nonrenewable energy resources and stabilizing the natural resource potential. Especially the harm to the environment of the waste produced from the industrial activities in developed countries threatens humanity and natural life. The social dimension includes carrying out social services like education and health and mutual participation. Also, social equality and the elimination of poverty is one of the milestones of sustainable development in the social dimension.

Sustainable development goals from a social perspective are improving the quality of human life, social equality, the integration of social and cultural bonds, increasing personal freedoms and strengthening the cooperation in deciding. Finally, for the economical dimension, it is preferred in a sustainable system a dimension that is avoided the instabilities harming the production of goods and services, and that the governments’ debts are managed properly. Economic development can become sustainable only when all wealth holding is stabilized. Sustainable development goals from an economic perspective are avoiding unequal commerce, encouragement of providing international justice, eliminating income inequality, basing on the actual cost in pricing, encouraging investments, and supporting local economies.

Sustainable Development and International Law

While the efforts on sustainable development goals, prepared, continue, it is observed that the process has some faults when evaluated legally. Nations are detected that they do not fulfil their responsibilities, determined with the conventions, in the forums and summits, conducted for a more fair and liveable world. Certain problems that have been fought for a long time still exist. The lack of disincentives for nations for not complying with the goals determined in the conventions they signed, can make realizing the sustainable development goals difficult. Therefore, for a sustainable future, it will create a driving force for the realization of the goals when the steps taken have a more powerful part in international law.

Sustainable development has taken place in international legal documents for a long time, even though it is unbinding. This term, including in many international conventions, is mostly used as a goal to achieve by the parties of the conventions. However, it could not go beyond that. One of the most important goals to achieve by international society is sustainable development. International law is a way to follow this goal. There are a number of documents identifying the responsibilities of nations on providing improvements in terms of economic development and environmental issues of developing poor countries.

In the 1992 Rio summit, five documents, prepared from the prologue of the UN Charter and forms the foundation of sustainable development in terms of international law, were declared. These are Agenda 21 comprising 40 Chapters, The Rio Déclaration on Environment and Development, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and The Non Legally Binding Authoritative Statement Of Principles For A Global Consensus On The Management, Conservation And Sustainable Development of Ail Types of Forests. However, it must be stated that these documents are also nonbinding. It is very important for sustainable development to be strengthened and secured by international law. At the conference, organized by the International Law Association, in order to strengthen the legal part of sustainable development goals, the “2002 New Delhi Declaration of the International Law Association” was declared. With the seven principles in the declaration, sustainable development goals have been aimed to take a more comprehensive place in international law with their both development and environmental effects, and become a guide on the way to realize this. These seven principles are given below:

  • The nation’s task to the sustainable use of natural resources, 
  • Equality principle and eradicating poverty,
  • Mutual but differentiated responsibilities principle,
  • Precautionary approach to human health, natural resources and ecosystems principle,
  • Participation of the people and accessibility to law principle,
  • Good governance principle,
  • Integration and mutual relationship on especially human rights and social, economic and environmental principle.

Sustainable development goals have been tried to put in a more solid spot in international law parallel with the principles. In most cases, terms are too soft for nations to be taken the responsibility for sustainable development. Also, articles in the related convention are only principally binding.


It can be clearly seen that the cooperation of nations on sustainable development have not been adequate for the resolution of the problem. Many factors such as current environmental problems, social inequalities, economic instabilities, underdeveloped countries, societies having hardship even to find clean drinking water, poverty, unconscious consumption of resources and etc. increasingly affect everything. It creates a dilemma that the so-called cooperation of nations gathered under the leadership of the United Nations and the fact that they follow a course different from common goals.

It will not be wrong to say that the nations have not been involved enough in the actions for the common principles on the sustainability of development. Revision of goals every year indicates that they have not yet been achieved anything so far. The goal that could not be guaranteed by international law does not create a responsibility for nations to take precautions. It is still not certain whether the 2030 goas cannot be performed. However, on behalf of future generations, it is clear that it is necessary to gather the environmental, economic and social milestones on a solid basis, and nations are needed to sacrifice for the realization of these principles, and this is necessary to be grounded legally. Also, all nations are needed to contribute to the sustainability of development.

Research by Büşra YENGEÇ ERSİN