Earth Charter

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Earth Charter

It is the objective of the Earth Charter to set forth an inspiring vision of the fundamental principles of a global partnership for sustainable development and environmental conservation . The Earth Charter initiative reflects the conviction that a radical change in humanity's attitudes and values is essential to achieve social, economic, and ecological well-being in the twenty-first century. The Earth Charter project is part of an international movement to clarify humanity's shared values and to develop a new global ethics, ensuring effective human cooperation in an interdependent world.

There were repeated efforts to draft the Earth Charter beginning in 1987. Early in 1997 an Earth Charter Commission was formed by the Earth Council and Green Cross International. The Commission prepared an Earth Charter which it was circulated as a people's treaty beginning in 1998. The Charter was then submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2000. On June 29, 2000, the official Earth Charter was established at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Holland.

Historical background, 19451992

The role and significance of the Earth Charter are best understood in the context of the United Nations' ongoing efforts to identify the fundamental principles essential to world security. When the U.N. was established in 1945, its agenda for world security emphasized peace, human rights, and equitable socioeconomic development. No mention was made of the environment as a common concern, and little attention was given to ecological well-being in the U.N.'s early years. However, since the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, ecological security has emerged as a fourth major concern of the United Nations.

Starting with the Stockholm Declaration, the world's nations have adopted a number of declarations, charters, and treaties that seek to create a global alliance that effectively integrates and balances development and conservation. In addition, a variety of nongovernmental organizations have drafted and circulated their own declarations and people's treaties. These documents reflect a growing awareness that humanity's social, economic, and environmental problems are interconnected and require integrated solutions. The Earth Charter initiative builds on these efforts.

The World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1982, was a progressive declaration of ecological and ethical principles for its time. It remains a stronger document than any that have followed from the point of view of environmental ethics . However, in its 1987 report, Our Common Future , the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued a call for "a new charter" that would "consolidate and extend relevant legal principles," creating "new norms...needed to maintain livelihoods and life on our shared planet" and "to guide state behavior in the transition to sustainable development." The WCED also recommended that the new charter "be subsequently expanded into a Convention, setting out the sovereign rights and reciprocal responsibilities of all states on environmental protection and sustainable development."

The WCED recommendations, together with deepening environmental and ethical concerns, spurred efforts in the late 1980s to create an Earth Charter. However, before any U.N. action was initiated on the Earth Charter, the Commission on Environmental Law of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) drafted the convention proposed in Our Common Future. The IUCN Draft International Covenant on Environment and Development presents an integrated legal framework for existing and future international and national environmental and sustainable development law and policy. Even though the IUCN Draft Covenant was presented at the United Nations in 1995 official negotiations have not yet begun on this treaty which many environmentalists believe is urgently needed to clarify, synthesize, and further develop international sustainable development law.

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), or Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 did take up the challenge of drafting the Earth Charter. A number of governments prepared recommendations. Many nongovernmental organizations, including groups representing the major faiths, became actively involved. While the resulting Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is a valuable document, it falls short of the aspirations that many groups have had for the Earth Charter.

The Earth Charter Project, 19942000

A new Earth Charter initiative began in 1994 under the leadership of Maurice Strong, the former secretary general of UNCED and chairman of the newly formed Earth Council, and Mikhail Gorbachev, acting in his capacity as chairman of Green Cross International. The Earth Council was created to complete the unfinished business of UNCED and to promote implementation of Agenda 21, the Earth Summit's action plan. Jim MacNeill, former secretary general of the WCED and Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers of The Netherlands were instrumental in facilitating the organization of the new Earth Charter project. Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria served as the executive director of the project during its initial phase, and its first international workshop was held at the Peace Palace in The Hague in May 1995. Representatives from 30 countries and more than 70 different organizations participated in the workshop. Following this event, the secretariat for the Earth Charter project was established at the Earth Council in San José, Costa Rica.

A worldwide Earth Charter consultation process was organized by the Earth Council in connection with the Rio& plus;5 review in 1996 and 1997. The Rio+5 review, which culminated with a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in June 1997, sought to assess progress toward sustainable development since the Rio Earth Summit and to develop new partnerships and plans for implementation of Agenda 21. The Earth Charter consultation process engaged men and women from all sectors of society and all cultures in contributing to the Earth Charter's development. A special program was created to contact and involve the world's religions, interfaith organizations, and leading religious and ethical thinkers. A special indigenous people's network was also organized by the Earth Council.

Early in 1997, an Earth Charter Commission was formed to oversee the project. The 23 members represent the major regions of the world and different sectors of society. The Commission issued a Benchmark Draft Earth Charter in March 1997 at the conclusion of the Rio+5 Forum in Rio de Janeiro. The Forum was organized by the Earth Council as part of its independent Rio+5 review, and it brought together more than 500 representatives from civil society and national councils of sustainable development. The Benchmark Draft reflected the many and diverse contributions received through the consultation process and from the Rio+5 Forum. The Commission extended the Earth Charter consultation until early 1998, and the Benchmark Draft was circulated widely as a document in progress.

The Earth Charter concept

A consensus developed that the Earth Charter should be: a statement of fundamental principles of enduring significance that are widely shared by people of all races, cultures, and religions; a relatively brief and concise document composed in a language that is inspiring, clear, and meaningful in all tongues; the articulation of a spiritual vision that reflects universal spiritual values, including but not limited to ethical values; a call to action that adds significant new dimensions of value to what has been expressed in earlier relevant documents; a people's charter that serves as a universal code of conduct for ordinary citizens, educators, business executives, scientists, religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and national councils of sustainable development; and a declaration of principles that can serve as a "soft law" document when adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. The Earth Charter was designed to focus on fundamental principles with the understanding that the IUCN Covenant and other treaties will set forth the more specific practical implications of these principles.

The Earth Charter draws upon a variety of resources, including ecology and other contemporary sciences, the world's religious and philosophical traditions, the growing literature on global ethics and the ethics of environment and development, the practical experience of people living sustainably, as well as relevant intergovernmental and nongovernmental declarations and treaties. At the heart of the new global ethics and the Earth Charter is an expanded sense of community and moral responsibility that embraces all people, future generations , and the larger community of life on Earth. Among the values affirmed by the Benchmark Draft are: respect for Earth and all life; protection and restoration of the health of Earth's ecosystems; respect for human rights, including the right to an environment adequate for human well-being; eradication of poverty; nonviolent problem solving and peace; the equitable sharing of resources; democratic participation in decision making; accountability and transparency in administration; universal education for sustainable living; and a sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of the Earth community.

[Steven C. Rockefeller ]



Earth Ethics, Special Earth Charter Double Issue. Washington, D.C.: Center for Respect of Life and Environment, 7, nos. 3/4 (Spring/Summer, 1996): 1-7 and 8, nos. 2/3 (Winter/Spring, 1997): 3-8.

Rockefeller, S.C. Principles of Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development: Summary and Survey. The Earth Council website, The Earth Charter Consultation page: <>..


The Earth Charter Initiative, The Earth Council, P.O. Box 319-6100, San Jose, Costa Rica +506-205-1600 , Fax: +506-249-3500, Email: [email protected], <>