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PAC 87 – Biodiversity At Risk: The Role Of State Sovereignty The 16th Conference of the parties to CITES, Bangkok 3-14th March 2013

By Valérie Le Brenne

Translation: Anton Stzepourginski

Passage au crible n°87

Between the 3rd and the 14th of March 2013, Bangkok held the 16th conference of the parties to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). It gathered more than 20,000 participants from 178 countries. For its 40th birthday, the conference started with a call for “fighting overfishing, illegal logging, and crime linked with illicit exploitation of animal species“. At the same time, the parties to CITES removed several specimens that are now extinct from Appendix I of the Convention: As an example, the high-profile Tasmanian tiger.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

The conference of the parties to CITES has been carried out every three years since 1976. It aims at representing a global regulatory body for animal and plant species trade to preserve biodiversity. In order to do so, it has an elaborate classification tool based on scientific expertise. This body of conventions is a dynamic guideline with three appendices that can be used by Member States.

In 1963, the CITES was created through a resolution that was passed by the General Assembly of the IUON (International Union for Observation of Nature). In order to “regulate export, transit and import of rare and endangered wildlife species“, there had to be an international convention. This is the result of the disappearance of wild fauna and flora because of their economic exploitation by the rural poor. That approach fitted fully with 1960s’ new preoccupations regarding environmental issues, and it preceded 1970s’ international summits. However, such an initiative wasn’t on the table until the Stockholm conference in 1972, when a plenipotentiary conference could finally be considered. On the 3rd of March 1973, eighty countries approved the creation of the CITES at the Washington Conference.

Today, with 178 Member States, environmental NGOs and private companies, the CITES remains one of the most ambitious international tools to preserve biodiversity. Indeed, 30,000 animal and plant species are protected, and there is a specific level of protection for high-profile species such as polar bears, African elephants and sharks.

Theoretical framework
1. A destroyed GPG (Global Public Good). Species of wild flora and fauna are GPGs and their safety requires the implementation of global governance in which States have to play a major role. Such a binding multilateralism seems to be the best solution to keep species of wild flora and fauna from being harmed. Indeed, they are mainly affected by international trade but mostly by environmental damage.
2. The obstacle of State sovereignty. The sovereign right of States to build their own legislative framework is the main obstacle to the achievement of this global regulatory system. Therefore, the production of normative instruments appears to be the only effective tool for that summit diplomacy. However, a growing number of environmental NGOs denounce the harmful effects of such system on species endangered through illicit trade.


The 16th Conference of the parties to CITES shows how much Member States want to set up a global governance in order to regulate any GPG. One in a thousand species becomes extinct with an extinction rate 100 to 1000 times higher than in the pre-human period. That is mainly explained by environmental degradation due to human activities, but also because of the overexploitation of species for commercial purposes and poaching organized by transnational criminal networks and its significant impact. Indeed, legal wildlife trade has an annual turnover of €15 billion, and it doesn’t include benefits from fishing and forestry.

Without a world State entitled to set up a supranational organ, international trade of wild fauna and flora has to be regulated through an intergovernmental cooperation. Therefore, an international legal regime must be put into motion in order to preserve biodiversity – States, however, remain the sole actors able to regulate business dynamics in which they take part.

In this perspective, after several negotiation rounds, three appendices have been set up. They provide a precious tool for this multilateral arena. Indeed, this legal corpus includes species accounts based on scientific analyses and it provides their hierarchical classification: Endangered species (Appendix I), species that may become extinct unless trade is closely controlled (Appendix II), species included at the request of a Party to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation (Appendix III). Each time a Conference of the parties to CITES is organized, this legal corpus is updated – extinct species are removed and new ones are put on the list. However, in that case, decisions must be taken by a majority of the Member States and, most of the time, there is a confrontation between multiple interests. Thus, several derogations are authorized and some States don’t mind using them to avoid regulatory mechanisms whereas they usually are the ones with the most at stake. As an example, Japan has been granted the authorization to hunt whales arguing a scientific goal. This is why environmental NGOs strongly denounce bargaining that is said to take place between Member States every time there is a Conference of the Parties to CITES.

Legal trade regulation of wildlife species and plants can only be achieved through greater involvement from Member States. Yet, as of today, there are no binding instruments. Also, in terms of combating illicit trade, the CITES is not efficient. Indeed, several species which used to be in the Appendix I, are now extinct and others face great risks due to poaching. Worse still, it seems that the CITES could lead to counterproductive results. Indeed, when a species becomes a listed entity, it increases its value on illicit markets.

Constantin François (Éd.), Les Biens publics mondiaux. Un mythe légitimateur pour l’action collective ?, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2002.
lemonde.fr, Planète, « Constat d’échec pour la défense du monde sauvage », disponible à la page http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2013/03/02/constat-d-echec-pour-la-defense-du-monde-sauvage_1841752_3244.html, dernière consultation le 31 mars 2013.
lemonde.fr, Planète, « Le commerce d’ivoire qui menace les éléphants d’Afrique, a triplé en quinze ans », disponible à la page : http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2013/03/02/constat-d-echec-pour-la-defense-du-monde-sauvage_1841752_3244.html, dernière consultation : le 31 mars 2013.
Site officiel de la CITES, disponible à la page : http://www.cites.org, dernière consultation : le 31 mars 2013.