IUCN mourns the loss of environmental law pioneer Wolfgang E. Burhenne

IUCN is deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Wolfgang E. Burhenne, a pioneer of environmental law and key architect of the modern environmental movement. Dr Burhenne passed away on 6 January, 2017 at the age of 92.

Wolfgang E. Burhenne Photo: © IUCN

“We have lost a giant of the environmental community, whose legacy dates back to the very establishment of IUCN,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “His was an extraordinary life of commitment to finding ways of using law, policy and institutions to create a stronger and more sustainable future.”   

Dr Wolfgang Burhenne will be remembered for having pioneered and pushed the boundaries of environmental law at international and national levels. His action in this field started within IUCN, which he joined for the first time as a young delegate to the 1950 General Assembly. He went on to establish the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, which he chaired until 1990, thus becoming the longest serving Chairman of an IUCN Commission. He also served as Legal Advisor to IUCN from 1990-94, and since 1994 as the United Nations Liaison of the Commission on  Environmental Law (CEL).

“Today, the environmental community mourns the loss of one of its greatest leaders and visionaries,” says Justice Antonio Benjamin, Chair, World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL). “Dr Burhenne’s extraordinary career and contributions, enshrined in so many of today’s most important environmental laws and institutions, have reshaped the environmental law landscape forever. One of these institutions is the WCEL – the largest network of environmental lawyers in the world, which he founded and led for more than 30 years.”  

Over the course of his career, Dr Burhenne contributed substantially to the development of several international agreements. International instruments such as the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature, the World Charter for Nature, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and others are rooted in his ideas, engagement and professional input.

He was one of the signatories of the 1961 Morges Manifesto that gave birth to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and, together with Elisabeth Haub, the initiator of the Karl-Schmitz-Scholl Fonds (KSSF), which supported countless projects, initiatives, and organisations around the world.

Together with his wife, Dr Françoise Burhenne-Guilmin, Wolfgang Burhenne worked with the Organization of African Unity to establish the Algiers Conservation Convention in 1968. They played significant roles in creating the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); the 1982 World Charter for Nature, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly; and the 1985 Association for South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

His lifelong contribution to environmental law was acknowledged through many recognitions, distinctions and awards such as the UN International Environmental Prize (UNEP Sasakawa Prize), the Knight Commander’s Cross (badge and star) of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and in 2012 of the Harold Jefferson Coolidge Memorial Medal for outstanding contributions to conservation of nature and natural resources.

IUCN joins the Burhenne family and countless communities around the world in remembering and celebrating the life of a remarkable man whose extraordinary legacy will go on protecting the planet’s precious biodiversity for many generations to come.


Should you wish to share your memories of Dr Burhenne or write some words of condolence, kindly post your text in the comments on this post on our Facebook page.

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