The present-day World Commission on Environmental Law, one of six IUCN specialized Commissions, began in committee form in 1960 by decision of the Seventh IUCN General Assembly (the overall governing body of all members of IUCN). The Assembly decision, in the form of a resolution, gives insight into the motivation for the committee's creation: "Whereas there is a need for more mutual contact between the Union and the personnel of governments and parliaments who are especially concerned with the conservation of nature and natural resources, and whereas there is a need for more contact between these persons in different countries in order to promote legislation on this subject, the Union should establish a special Committee on Legislation and Administration." A convergence of factors in the late fifties motivated this action, including an increasing influx of legislative materials coming to IUCN with no designated focal point and a growing number of requests from the United Nations and individual countries for legal and administrative assistance in matters of conservation and nature protection.
Equally influential for this decision, law had been an integral part of the Union's mission from the beginning.
The Union's first Constitution adopted in 1948 at its founding declares as the second and third objectives:
2. "The Union shall promote and recommend national and international action in respect of: ... (d) The preparation of international draft agreements and a worldwide convention for the 'Protection of Nature'," and
3. "The Union shall collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate information about the 'Protection of Nature'. It shall distribute to governments and national and international organizations, documents, legislative texts, scientific studies and other information concerning the 'Protection of Nature'."
Three years after the Committee's creation, the next IUCN General Assembly meeting in Nairobi took note of the ever-growing demand for services in environmental law and called for reconstituting the Committee as a permanent Commission, a status it has retained ever since though the name has changed from time to time. Beginning as the Commission on Legislation in 1963, it became the Commission on Environmental Policy, Law, and Administration (CEPLA) in 1970 with a broadened mandate in policy and administration. This designation continued until 1990 when the Commission name was simplified to Commission on Environmental Law (CEL), and in 2013 it became known as it is now, the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL).