San Diego International Law Journal

Document Type

Lead Article


This paper argues that for purposes of managing transboundary environment problems in general, and marine ecosystems in particular, the role of international law as traditionally understood is somewhat overrated. Binding international legal obligations owed by states to other states often turn out to be a good deal less important in environmental problem solving than is commonly supposed by many international lawyers, legal scholars, and environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Specifically, this paper argues that emphasis on binding multilateral environmental agreements among sovereign states is often misplaced and possibly even counterproductive, insofar as it threatens to divert attention from more promising strategies for managing important categories of transboundary environmental problems. These strategies typically involve novel multi-party regional collaborative governance arrangements that include sub-national and non-state actors as well as sovereign states. Such strategies seek integrated and adaptive management at ecosystem scales. This open-ended, experimentalist problem-solving approach calls into question the primacy of fixed rules of obligation owed by states to other states.