Research Handbook on International Environmental Law
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Research Handbook on International Environmental Law

Edited by Malgosia Fitzmaurice, David M. Ong and Panos Merkouris

This wide-ranging and comprehensive Handbook examines recent developments in international environmental law (IEL) and the crossover effects of this expansion on other areas of international law, such as trade law and the law of the sea.
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Chapter 9: The Principles of Prevention and Precaution in International Law: Two Heads of the Same Coin?

Nicolas de Sadeleer


Nicolas de Sadeleer Introduction Given that prevention and precaution appear in some ways intimately linked – two heads of the same coin – the aim of this chapter is to explore some of the key issues arising in discussion on the status of these two principles in international law. The principle of prevention 1. Prevention in a nutshell Curative measures may remediate environmental damage, but they come too late to avert it. In contrast, preventive measures do not depend on the appearance of ecological problems; they anticipate damage or, where it has already occurred, try to ensure it does not spread. In any case, common sense dictates timely prevention of environmental damage to the greatest extent possible, particularly when it is likely to be irreversible or too insidious or diffuse to be effectively dealt with through civil liability or when reparation would be extremely expensive. However, the outlines of the preventive principle are difficult to discern; it gives rise to so many questions that any attempt at interpretation calls for constant clarification. We may, for example, ask whether a preventive measure presupposes complete knowledge of the risk to be reduced, if all forms of damage must be foreseen, if intervention should take place at the level of the sources of damage or of their effects, and whether it is preferable to monitor the progress of damage or to avert damage the moment it becomes evident. 2. The interaction between the principle and the obligation not to cause environmental damage to the environment...

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