The IUCN Environmental Law Programme (ELP) has as its overriding rationale to assist in laying the strongest possible legal foundation for the conservation of the natural environment, thereby underpinning and supporting conservation efforts at national and international levels.

The origins of the ELP can be traced back to 1958 and there have been many significant achievements since that time. Ten major achievements organized by issue areas are noted below:

1. Creation of an integrated and computerized system for legal materials, the Environmental Law Information System (ELIS). Formally initiated at the Environmental Law Centre in 1974 following successful pilot tests, ELIS was the first and largest of its kind both with scope and user access; today it is part of ECOLEX, which is operated jointly by IUCN, FAO and UNEP.

The ELIS comprises the full spectrum of national to international legal texts and related materials currently managed in five major data bases. The five data bases are: International environmental treaties (multilateral and bilateral); Binding instruments of international and supernational organizations (EEC, Benelux, OECD); National environmental legislation; Legal and Policy-related literature and Soft Law (non-legally binding instruments -- declarations, resolutions, etc. adopted by major international bodies and conferences).

The ECOLEX Agreement provides for FAO to be responsible for the National Legislation data.

2. Major contribution to the development of international treaty law through the preparation of draft instruments, most notably:

  • The African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Algiers, 1968)
  • The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora -CITES (Washington 1973)
  • The Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals - CMS (Bonn, 1979)
  • The ASEAN Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Kuala Lumpur, 1985)
  • The Convention on Biological Diversity - CBD (Rio, 1992)
  • The International Covenant on Environment and Development, in cooperation with the International Council of Environmental Law (ICEL) and UNEP (1995 - present)

3. Major contribution to international "soft law" most notably with the preparation and promotion of the World Charter for Nature, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1982. The law programme network of members also contributed to two other important soft law documents in the field of international environment: the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972) and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992).

4. Significant contributions to the negotiation process of international treaties, providing critical technical commentary and proposals for textual language, including, for the Law of the Sea Convention (1982) negotiations; the Conventions on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and the Regulation of Mineral Related Activities in Antarctica; the marine pollution and hazardous waste conventions; international agreement on tropical timber; the Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection and regional accords, such as the Convention on Access to Information , Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) and the Convention concerning the Protection of the Alps.

5. Contribution to implementation of international agreements through regular advice and technical assistance on legal issues to the secretariats of multilateral environmental treaties (in particular CITES, Migratory Species, Ramsar, and Biodiversity) and production of studies and analyzes of implementation issues (e.g., for CITES, Ramsar, Biodiversity).

6. Contributions to the conceptual development of international and national environmental law through production of studies, guidelines, and analyses, including surveys, and synopsis of developments and trends in the field. Major studies have covered such topics as Islamic Principles for conservation of the natural environment, biodiversity in the sea, guidelines for protected areas legislation, conservation of wild plants, invasive species, and wetland-related law. Many of these studies have been produced as part of the IUCN Environmental Policy and Law Series.

7. Technical Assistance to developing countries upon request ranging from review, diagnosis and preparation of inventories of existing legislation, to identifying measures for strengthening national legislation, and assisting in drafting new legal instruments. Over the years, examples of countries receiving various levels and types of technical assistance include India ,Saudi Arabia and Oman, Gambia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, and Swaziland, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Solomon Islands, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile, Brazil and Philippines, Erythrea and Ethiopia, to cite but a few. Assistance ranged from the development of framework environmental laws to the improvement of specific legislation in the field of protected areas, wildlife conservation, access to genetic resources, biodiversity legislation and other specific environmental fields.

8. Local and Regional Capacity Building in Environmental law through seminars, workshops and training courses, the best example being the "Train the Trainers" Programme developed in the mid-1990s, starting with the Asia Pacific region in partnership with the National University of Singapore, the Asia Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, and support from UNEP and ADB. This project conducted courses for law professors teaching environmental law in the Asia-Pacific Regions at University level. It has resulted in a two-volume set of training materials for the region. Similar projects have been initiated with local partnership institutions in Latin America, West Asia, East Europe, China, Russia, and the Middle East.

9. Building a worldwide environmental law network: The Commission on Environmental Law began as a small committee in the 1960s with a handful of members. Today, its invited membership is some 700 international and environmental law specialists from 120 countries. These experts have been key to the achievements of the IUCN Environmental Law Programme over the past three decades.

10. International Awards: Among several recognitions and awards bestowed on Wolfgang Burhenne and Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin, the long-standing partner team who played the lead roles in building the law programme in its first forty years, the following two awards are especially noteworthy:

a. 1991: United Nations International Environmental Prize awarded jointly to Wolfgang Burhenne (Chair of the Committee/then Commission of Environmental Law from 1963 -1969, and again 1977-1990) and Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin (Head of the ELC from 1970-1999), for their achievements in furthering the field of international environmental law in large part through the IUCN Environmental Law Programme

b. 1997: Environmental Law Institute Award (Washington, DC), jointly to Wolfgang Burhenne and Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin; for their achievements in furthering international environmental law in large part through the IUCN Environmental Law Programme.