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International Law Regime


International and regional instruments and institutions play a key role in managing biodiversity and have influenced the development of biodiversity-related law and policy at a South African domestic scale. The emergence of several pertinent international and regional instruments and institutions have informed the way that South Africa chooses to conserve, manage and promote the sustainable use of its important biodiversity. These instruments and institutions also facilitate essential transboundary collaboration between South Africa and other countries.

One key institution that plays an important role in developing international law and policy is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The core mission of the IUCN is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable. It consists of over 1200 member organisations, which include over 200 governments and 900 NGOs.

The work of the IUCN is supported by numerous programmes and commissions. These programmes and commissions produce guidelines and reports that influence the development of international and domestic biodiversity-related law and policies. The recommendations that come from the IUCN World Conservation Congresses and the World Parks Congresses also influence the development biodiversity law and policy.


Convention on Biological Diversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is a framework treaty that favours a holistic and integrated approach to biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, over a species-based approach. The overall objectives of the CBD are the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.

The CBD is implemented through the decisions of the Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP adopted two protocols under the CBD, namely:

  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
  • Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization

South Africa ratified the CBD and has commitments under it. To give effect to its commitments, Parliament enacted a national law specifically dealing with biodiversity conservation called the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA). NEMBA is the law that regulates the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and its functions.

In terms of section 38 of NEMBA, the Minister responsible for environmental affairs had a legislative obligation to develop the National Biodiversity Framework (NBF) within 3 years from the date of commencement of the Act. Thus, in response to an obligation prescribed in terms of a national law, a national policy (the National Biodiversity Framework) was created. The content of the National Biodiversity Framework was in turn informed by other documents that SANBI had a key role in developing—including the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment of 2004 (which was the first iteration of the NBA), as well as the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). The NBSAP was in part a response to an international law commitment under the CBD. These documents offered the best available science and identified priorities that were crucial for informing the content of the NBF.

As previously mentioned, the NBSAP was developed so as to fulfil an international law obligation under the CBD. In terms of Article 6 of the Convention, member states (including South Africa) had to develop policies that would give effect to biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.


Ramsar Convention

The Ramsar Convention is an international law treaty which provides a framework for international cooperation and national action for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. As a contracting party to Ramsar Convention, South Africa commits to:
  • Working towards the wise use of all its wetlands through national plans, policies and legislation, management actions and public education. The Convention describes the wise use of wetlands as the maintenance of the wetlands’ ecological character, which is achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches within the context of sustainable development. Wise use can thus be viewed as the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and all the services they provide, for the benefit of people and nature.
  • Designating suitable wetlands for the list of Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar List) and ensuring its effective management. For this purpose, South Africa has already identified Wetlands of International Importance.
  • Cooperate internationally on transboundary wetlands, shared wetland systems, shared species and development projects that may affect wetlands.


Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) is a framework Convention which lays the legal foundation for internationally coordinated conservation measures throughout a migratory range. It is the only global convention specializing in the conservation of migratory species, their habitats and migration routes.

The CMS has Appendices which list the migratory species to which the Convention applies:

  • Appendix I of the CMS lists migratory species threatened with extinction.
  • Appendix II of the CMS lists migratory species that need or would significantly benefit from international co-operation.


Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The Convention is legally binding on its Parties, who have a duty to implement it. The CITES does not replace national laws but instead provides a framework to be respected by each Party, which then develops its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at a national level. South Africa implements CITES through the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act.


World Heritage Convention

The World Heritage Convention seeks to promote cooperation among nations to protect heritage around the world that is of such outstanding universal value that its conservation is important for current and future generations.


Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and or Desertification


The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is the only legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management. The UNCCD specifically addresses the arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands, where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found.


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets out a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas by establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. The UNCLOS recognises that all problems in the ocean space are closely interrelated and that they need to be addressed as a whole.


Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources


The objective of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. For the purposes of this Convention, the term ‘conservation’ includes ‘rational use’. Any harvesting and associated activities in the area to which the CCAMLR applies must be conducted in accordance with the provisions of this Convention and with the stated principles of conservation. The CCAMLR has relevance for the Prince Edward Islands.


Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels


South Africa is one of thirteen Parties to have joined the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). Through its Parties, the ACAP sets out to conserve albatrosses and petrels by coordinating international activities to mitigate threats to their populations. The 31 listed species face a conservation crisis, with thousands of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters are dying every year because of fisheries operations.


Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals


The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) protects the stocks of Antarctic seals from commercial exploitation. The objective of the Convention is to protect and enable scientific research on Antarctic seals and to maintain a satisfactory balance in the Antarctic ecosystem. The CCAS is considered to be a successful international agreement, given that seal populations in Antarctica have since recovered.