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).  

Structure and Membership

The initial Committee and then the Commission were designed to be governed by a chairperson, elected by the General Assembly, and one or more vice-chairs selected from the Commission membership. As with all IUCN commissions, the Commission on Environmental Law answers directly to the IUCN General Assembly and, between General Assemblies, to the IUCN Council (previously the executive board). As the Commission membership and work programme have grown over the years, the number of vice-chairs has increased. Initially the expansion was along substantive lines, for example, in the seventies, when vice-chairs were created for environmental law, environmental policy, and environmental administration. In the 1990s the Commission officer structure moved to a regional approach consistent with the Union as a whole and instituted a system by mid-decade where each of IUCN's eight regions was represented in CEL by a vice-chair. Also in the 1990s to facilitate management, a Commission Steering Committee was created consisting of the Chair, a Deputy Chair, the regional Vice-Chairs, the Head of the IUCN Environmental Law Centre, and a Liaison to the UN System. In 1998, the Steering Committee established 6 working groups of CEL members to better facilitate participation of members and to increase CEL input in priority areas into the work of IUCN. The working groups were Judiciary, Ethics and Jurisprudence, Environmental Legal Education, Information Technology, Climate Change and Energy, and Indigenous Peoples, and excepting Information Technology they continue today.

As with all Commissions, individuals become members of CEL only by formal invitation of the Commission chair. Invitations and their renewals are based on accomplishments and expertise in international and national environmental law, policy and administration, taking into account geographic distribution. In the early years membership was relatively small, restricted to distinguished experts in the field, but this policy was eased in later decades to broaden the Commission's reach, especially to professionals in developing countries. Through the eighties, membership remained around a hundred individuals, fluctuating as low as the twenties in the mid-seventies. This began to change in the nineties as the issue gained increased attention, particularly for the value a broadened base could bring for maintaining country-level information and strengthening local expertise. In addition, by the 1990s the pool of potential candidates had expanded substantially worldwide as environmental awareness grew. New members began to be invited in earnest and membership numbers began to grow substantially. By the mid-nineties, the Commission had some 300 members from 89 countries and this more than doubled by the end of the decade to some 700 international and environmental law specialists representing 120 countries.

Today WCEL members represent diverse areas of expertise within the field of environmental law and policy; all serve in their personal capacities. They are drawn from academia, public service, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations. An ongoing priority has been to increase membership in developing countries. Since full Commission meetings normally are called only during the quadrennial Congresses, the Commission began a quarterly newsletter for members in 1985 as a tool for passing on information about important international developments within the Commission's sphere of interest and providing a forum for collaboration and exchange of information. 


From the beginning, members have been the backbone of the Commission's substantive work programme, providing volunteer and consultant resources, networking, and information exchange on specialized issues, new developments and project requests, supplemented by short-term researchers and students. In 1965, with help from project funds and small grants (particularly from WWF-Germany), the Commission was able to build a small secretariat with one full-time lawyer and a small office located in Bonn, Germany, the home of the first and most long-standing Chairman, Wolfgang Burhenne.

In 1970, to ensure stability and continuity of this staff, IUCN headquarters created the IUCN Environmental Law Centre (ELC) out of the small Commission unit (see discussion on ELC below). The ELC has continued as an out posted unit of the Secretariat located in Bonn and continues to provide service to the Commission as a whole as well as to the work of its members and Steering Committee. Project outputs of the Commission since the seventies normally have been billed as collaborative or joint projects with the ELC under the broad heading of the IUCN Environmental Law Programme (see achievements below).

Creation of the Environmental Law Centre by the IUCN Secretariat brought some core funding for staff and administration and was essential for the work of the Commission. Nevertheless, funding always remained a special challenge for the Commission since only limited resources were available from the budget of IUCN. Thus, from the early years, the Commission with the assistance of the ELC built alliances and partnerships with other environmental organizations and private donors to support substantive input to the work of IUCN as well as other international organizations, and to maintain its worldwide membership network. Among the major funding partners have been the Worldwide Fund for Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund), the Karl Schmitz Scholl Fonds, the Fund for Environmental Studies (FUST), the Elizabeth Haub Foundations, and the International Council for Environmental Law. Important long-term projects, such as the publication series (see achievements below), could not have been possible without these outside revenues. In addition, international organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme and many governments became strong supporters of specific projects over the years.

Substantive Programme

In 1960 when the initial Committee was created, the first priorities were twofold: l) organize the existing accumulated materials and build a useable collection of legislative materials on conservation from member countries and internationally; and 2) begin to address incoming technical requests for legal assistance. These priorities continued through the sixties as the Committee was reconstituted a permanent Commission. In addition, the Commission began to take on a leadership technical role with development of early international conservation agreements. Early work, for example, with the African Convention, was undertaken at the request of or in collaboration with FAO and UNESCO, this being an era prior to the creation of UNEP in 1973 following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972).

Through the years, the Commission's substantive programme has generally continued in these three major areas, with specific issues and outputs changing in response to needs of the times. With the assistance of the ELC and in collaboration with other IUCN Commissions, WCEL has continued to focus on building strong legal foundations for conservation of the natural environment nationally and internationally by: l) gathering and monitoring information on national legislation, international treaties, policies, and trends; 2) promoting and assisting with development and implementation of international environmental law; and 3) promoting and assisting with technical assistance and capacity building in environmental law at individual, institutional and national levels.

Beginning in the 1990s, as the Commission began to markedly expand its membership and environmental law became better worldwide, CEL began to place special emphasis on capacity-building at the regional level. Initiatives were undertaken, in partnership with other institutions, to train environmental lawyers and to organize or contribute to regional workshops relating to environmental law.

Starting in the Asia Pacific, a CEL-led "Training the Trainers Programme" on Environmental Law was initiated in 1997 at APCEL in Singapore, and expanded by the late nineties to Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, West Asia, East Europe, North and Central Asia, China, Russia, and the Middle East.

An important underlying feature of the Commission's operations throughout its forty-plus year history has been its commitment to building and maintaining close links with a variety of international organizations and other non-governmental organizations, from the International Council of Environmental Law to the World Wildlife Fund and other specialized environmental organizations.

Through its Liaison to the UN System, CEL began in the nineties to develop a practice of monitoring and participating in meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, UNEP Governing Council and UN/ECE, and other bodies, such as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.  

Commission Chairs

1963-1969 W.E. Burhenne
1969-1976 Lyndon Keith Caldwell
1977-1990 W.E. Burhenne
1990-1996 Parvez Hassan
1996-2004 Nicholas Robinson
2004-2012 Sheila Abed de Zavala
2013-2021 Antonio Herman V. Benjamin

2021-Present Christina Voigt